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A DNA test could save your life, but potentially also h...

Business Maverick

BUSINESS MAVERICK OP-ED

A DNA test could save your life, but potentially also hand you a life sentence

The paternal DNA of the hair found in the Vaalkrans Cave was provided by descendants who were herders who came down from East Africa, between 2,000 and 1,200 years ago. (Photo: Pete Linforth / Pixabay)

Genetic testing provides a glimpse into your future. It identifies the elements and environments you should avoid, as it puts your wellbeing at risk. But you could also learn some scary facts, such as the high chance of your developing serious conditions such as early-onset Alzheimer’s or incurable rare cancer. Whether you dare a drive down DNA lane as I did or choose to play the odds of ignorant bliss, genetic screening is life-changing stuff.

Mapping your unique genetic makeup has nothing to do with genealogy, lineage or ancestry. It lays out the genes you have and the genes you don’t, which of those work and which don’t, and how the variations and mutations of them all are linked to specific diseases or health conditions.

My specific gene pool was filled by DNA testing outfit GENEWAY, which provided insight into my general wellness, athletic ability and skin health, via its General Combo option.

I was provided with a collection kit and all I had to do was scrape the inside of my cheek with a cotton wool bud for 60 seconds, place it in a provided glass container and get it back to the lab within 24 hours.

My sample was processed and my “Gene wellness”, “Gene diet”, “Gene sport” and “Gene Renew” reports were produced within 10 days and made available to me via an online portal

GENEWAY Company operations and training manager Dr Christa North took me through my results, pointing out my genetic proposition and disposition. Due to a specific gene mutation, I learnt that I am extremely allergic to benzine, and another gene, which I was simply born without, makes the toxins in plastic even more toxic to me.

Benzene is found in crude oil, petrol and heavy-metal air pollution. North said that living near a refinery or working on a rig is probably not a good idea for me. North also advised against me drinking water from plastic bottles and told me to never heat up my food in plastic containers in the microwave.

It could also make me vulnerable to early-onset Alzheimer’s, according to other reports.

But my risk profile was covered from no impact to a red flag, with recommendations and specifications on foods to avoid, preferable exercise regimens, supplements to fill the gaps and beauty product punts. All based on my results.

GENEWAY is one of a growing base of local providers in health and wellbeing testings and screenings. Names like EasyDNA, DNA Analysis Biotechnology and DNAlysis pop up with a quick Google search.

Investec Life has just announced it has partnered with UK-based genetics company DNAfit to provide tests to its clients at a reduced rate, to help them understand how their unique genetic profile affects their response to fitness, nutrition, stress and sleep. The process includes a consultation with a registered dietician and sports scientist to help put their genetic report into action.

Investec Life CEO Michael Goemans tells me in its current form this service is a simple value-add perk, and that the company will not have access to clients’ personal DNA data. He also says that the tests will have no bearing on risk product premiums. He believes that a greater focus on personalisation products will grow the sector and bring benefits for all.

Discovery has been dabbling in genetic testing for a couple of years. Its medical aid announced a similar partnership in 2015, but lately more meetings on the matter have happened in the Life offices of the Sandton-based building.

Swiss Re Research says genetic testing is dramatically on the rise and according to its research, there is a correlation between the test and purchasing life insurance. It shows that those who take a test and discover they are at high risk are four times more likely to buy insurance.

Healthier policyholders also bode well for the sector, as it clamps down on claims, while consumers enjoy the advantage of learning more about their genetic predispositions.

But the novelty will soon wear off if the results of these tests are required to be disclosed to an insurer. Concerns over genetic discrimination or adverse selection are making the rounds. These include exclusion from insurance coverage, the imposition of medical underwriting limits, threatening the affordability of cover and privacy of information.

Unlike other countries, including the US and Britain, genetic testing is not a component of the long-term insurance industry’s underwriting processes in South Africa.

But underwriters may still ask if you have been a subject of such tests, and as an applicant, they expect you to disclose any significant health concerns you are aware of, which by definition will include any diagnostics provided by any type of health test and medical research.

That is how Discovery Life, Brightrock and Momentum are doing it, and so is Momentum.

Fully underwritten life policies are issued only if the individual policyholder has completed a full underwriting process, which involves a comprehensive assessment of the life insured’s health and medical history.

Insurers are obliged to review the terms of a policy if an applicant provides the results of a predictive genetic test, in terms of an industry standard that The Association for Savings and Investment South Africa (Asisa) has in play.

Asisa also requires insurers to take the value of specialist surveillance, medical intervention and successful treatment into account when assessing an individual’s risk profile. The insurer may not request an applicant to undergo a genetic test to support an application for insurance.

Although these standards are not legally binding, the Ombudsman for Long-Term Insurance, whose role includes mediating disputes between insurers and the insured life, also keeps an eye on things.

Asisa reports that more than half of claims rejected by life insurers are due to non-disclosure of material information, which involves an act of dishonesty on the part of policyholders’. Non-disclosure refers to policyholders not disclosing material information to a life insurer about a medical or lifestyle condition to secure lower premiums or to obtain cover without exclusions.

They point out that it is critically important for consumers to understand the potentially devastating financial consequences to their families of not honestly disclosing important information such as any lifestyle or health-related detail that could materially affect the terms of the policy.

So if are not sure whether the information could be considered as material by the life insurer, such as details in DNA tests, rather disclose it. The same goes for technical terms and any other detail you are not sure of. BM

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