MP’s Inbreeding Claim on Diabetes Sparks Row

A suggestion by the former chairman of the Commons science committee that inbreeding may be behind a sharp increase in diabetes cases has sparked a row in his Norfolk constituency and the medical world. The claim, made by the Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson, followed publication of research showing the county had more than double the number of children diagnosed with type one diabetes than would be expected for its level of population. In the past three years doctors have treated 42 new cases of the condition in Norfolk among children, compared with a national average of 24 for a county the same size.

Commenting on the rise to his local newspaper, Dr Gibson, MP for Norwich North, was reported as saying: “I would imagine it is linked to the fact that people in Norfolk are quite inbred. It is something that needs to be looked at as a priority.”

Dr Gibson told the Guardian yesterday that the genetic component contributing towards diabetes should not be underemphasised. Gene pools in different parts of the country had been shown to predispose some people to different medical conditions.

Norfolk had in previous centuries been a county with relatively isolated villages in which people had married locally: “There’s a relatively small gene pool.” The point of looking at genetic components was that it could help people become aware of their susceptibility to medical conditions. “You need more research to say that environmental matters or nutrition are the predominant cause of diabetes. We haven’t looked at the DNA of these people.” His use of the term “inbreeding” was not meant to be offensive.

Dr Gibson has a BSc from Edinburgh University and a PhD in genetics. He was dean of the University of East Anglia school of biological sciences for six years.

There has been a significant, national increase in the number of type one diabetes cases among children aged under 15, according to the charity Diabetes UK, rising from 11,400 in 1996 to 20,000 in 2004. The organisation accepts there is a genetic component to development of diabetes but says environmental factors are far more significant. “Diabetes is a complex condition,” said Dr Angela Wilson, its director of research. “It has many causes, including lifestyle, environment and genetics. Increased cleanliness and not exposing children to formerly common germs [may] make their immune systems less able to cope.”

The local response was one of outrage. Dr Ketan Dhatariya, consultant diabetologist at the Norfolk and Norwich University hospital, called the MP’s remarks disgraceful. “It’s an insult to people with type one diabetes and their families and an insult to people in Norfolk. There is a genetic element but it may be triggered by an environmental factor. Nobody knows why it is rising,” he said.