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Insurers are considering screening applicants for genes associated with certain types of cancer and may ask for an exception to a moratorium on using such tests for insurance policies, the British government said Wednesday.
Applicants might be screened for the presence of genetic mutations linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, according to a recent health department report.
The Association of British Insurers could apply for permission to scan applicants' medical files for the mutations as early as next year, an agency committee said. It did not say whether it would approve such a request.
If granted, the exception would apply only to a small fraction of applicants seeking expensive, high-end policies. Insurers are forbidden from forcing anyone to take a test.
But campaigners warned that women with a family history of breast cancer might forgo getting tested for fear that the results would someday end up in insurers' hands.
''Choosing to take a genetic test is a difficult-enough decision to make without the added fear that insurance companies may use this information against them,'' said Sarah Rawlings, a spokeswoman for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, a U.K. charity.
A moratorium on the use of genetic information for insurance policies is in place until 2011, but women could find their tests being used to raise their premiums once the moratorium ran out, said Helen Wallace, the director of GeneWatch UK, a British genetics watchdog.
Genetic tests can detect mutations in the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, the so-called breast cancer genes. About four out of five women with the defective gene will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, and those with the BRCA-1 gene mutation are also at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. (Raphael Satter, AP)