Monday, October 18, 2021

What is DNA testing?

Absentee fathers who have been dragged to the Magistrates court to answer to charges of failing to maintain their children often try to evade responsibility by demanding a DNA test; desperately hoping that maybe they will be absolved from the responsibility of taking care of their children.

The Extension II Magistrates court is normally a hive of activity on a regular Monday morning, with legal assistants scurrying through the corridors with stacks of files, lawyers hastily putting on their gowns in preparation for court, while another room is set aside for disgruntled women with stony faces who have come to report their usually former lovers for failing to maintain their children. As usual, the accused man demands a DNA test before assuming the role of father.

“I demand a DNA test,” they normally saying, expressing doubts that their rendezvous could have sired offspring. The question that immediately comes to mind is whether these men actually know what a DNA test is. The acronym DNA is synonymous with a paternity test and is defined by Kefentse Tumedi, a Junior Researcher in Natural Resources and Materials at Botswana Institute of Technology and Research and Innovation (BITRI). Tumedi says a paternity test, which has become central to the ever growing DNA discourse, is actually a genetic test.

During a paternity or maternity test, doctors test for mitochondria (an organelle found in large numbers in most cells) to determine if the child belongs to both the man and the woman undergoing the test. DNA testing has also been used to determine genealogical (of or relating to the study or tracing of lines of family descent) information for people trying to find their roots. This amazing scientific procedure goes above and beyond the human body and can also be used by the forensics departments of law enforcement agencies.

“These tests have been instrumental in identifying perpetrators who have committed crimes. In instances of rape, semen samples can be collected from the victims’ body to identify the rapist,” said Tumedi.

She added that the smallest most basic human body parts like blood, hair, saliva and dead skin cells collected from the crime scene can also be used for criminal identification. In the agriculture sector, scientists can diagnose potentially socio-economically crippling diseases like Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) through DNA or RNA (single strand of DNA). From their findings, sequences of different strains of this disease are documented and can later be used to check for mutations, which also enables them to create new vaccines. In medicine, the viral load and HIV testing for infants is conducted through RNA testing. Chronic disease such as tuberculosis (TB) can be diagnosed through DNA tests; and enable doctors to determine the types of drugs that need to be administered to a patient.

The Botswana U-Penn Partnership study is currently working on various TB cross infection points. According to Tumedi such infections are most common in social places like bars, churches and in public transport vehicles. Despite the many inroads that DNA testing has made, Tumedi feels there is still need for a more rapid genetic based test.

“The advent of diseases like ebola and zika virus need rapid genetic testing to help prevent them from spreading quickly,” says Tumedi.

The DNA paternity testing centre located in Gaborone is able to provide paternity test results after 10 working days. Though most are often quick to demand one, the DNA test comes at a very hefty price of approximately P3, 500 per family consisting of both parents and one child. An extra P1, 100 is charged for every extra charge. These types of tests are not covered by medical aid since they are not ailments. If the DNA test proves that the man who demanded the DNA test is not the father of the child, then the mother is expected by law to reimburse him. Home paternity test kits are mushrooming and already available in South Africa. They have however raised a lot of ethical issues as there is a high risk of contamination of evidence.

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