Being sure of genes

Companies are given permission to use genetic tests to decide on insurance policy in the UK

Published: Thursday 30 November 2000

The United Kingdom has decided to allow insurance companies to use genetic test results to decide whether a person be given a life insurance or not. At present, only tests for Huntington's disease, a degenerative brain disease, is being considered. But in the future, tests for six more diseases may be considered. In other words, it could result in denial of insurance to a person who is healthy but has a flawed genetic make-up, which may or may not result in some disease in the future.

Until now, it was not necessary for patients to divulge tests results to insurance companies. But the Genetics and Insurance Committee, under the government's health department, has given the insurance companies the right to demand the results.

Consumer rights groups opposing the step feel this is going to deprive the most needy the benefit of insurance. There is also a fear of creating a 'genetic undercaste' in the process. The decision also questions the reliability of the tests. Not all diseases have a clear-cut genetic answer, as in the case of Huntington's disease, but are dependent on interaction between different genes and also between genes and the environment. "There is now some attempt to distinguish among genetically-caused ailments. But it will be very difficult to work out which genes affect what and when," says Wayland Kennet of Bayswater Institute, the United Kingdom.

An almost impossible suggestion would be that the government takes up the responsibility of insuring people who are at high risk or make insurance compulsory for all so that resources are pooled.

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