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1 in 25 men in dark as they raise others' children

The Telegraph, by Celia Hall, Medical Editor, August 11, 2005

One father in 25 could unknowingly be bringing up a child who is not his own, says new research that suggests a rise in genetic testing has opened a Pandora's box of sexual secrets and lies.

Genetic testing for diseases in families is growing and can reveal a child's real paternity, leaving doctors to decide how much to disclose to the family.

One of the authors of the study, Prof Mark Bellis, of the centre for public health at Liverpool John Moores University, said: "Twenty years ago doctors would have tended not to tell when they came across this information unless it was important for the health of the child.

"But advances in genetics mean that there is now Read More ..essure for a child to know who his or her biological parents are."

The study found that the general rate of what Prof Bellis calls "paternal discrepancy" across western populations was usually given as about 10 per cent. But his work, based on studies between 1950 and last year, which gave proof of paternity through blood or DNA testing, found rates as low as one per cent and as high as 30 per cent, with a median of four per cent.

That means that paternity could be disputed in 24,000 out of 600,000 live births in England and Wales each year.

Paternity testing using DNA screening is requested by immigration authorities for some immigrant family members who want to live in Britain and for paternity payments when families have broken up and are in dispute.

It is also used by many thousands of suspicious or curious men and women who pay about 200 to paternity testing companies.

About 10,000 tests are said to be carried out in Britain every year and that figure is rising. When people approach private companies, requests are often based on suspicion and the man is found not to be the father in about 30 per cent of cases.

Prof Bellis, writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, says that the problem of disclosure and the consequences to family members have received too little attention. "For any father, identifying that the child he is raising as his biological progeny is sired by another can have serious health consequences. Such knowledge can also destroy families, affecting the health of the child and mother and that of any man who is ultimately identified as the biological parent."

Prof Bellis added yesterday: "There is no national guidance on how this DNA information should be handled."

The research says that in cases of paternal discrepancy the mothers are likely to be younger than average.

"No clear population measures of paternal discrepancy are available," Prof Bellis said. "However, recent trends in sexual health suggest that unprotected sex and multiple partners are comparatively common occurrences, with a large proportion of conceptions still unplanned."

The Families Need Fathers charity said the problem of a father seeking access to a child found not to be his own had not been tested in the courts. But Jim Parton, a spokesman, said: "We believe that a father wishing to continue to bring up that child will have a strong case."

Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.