Forensic DNA technology could help identify and reunite more than 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Islamist militants with their families, scientists said on Tuesday.
Software exists to match missing people with their relatives and it has been used worldwide to identify and return to their families more than 740 children who had been trafficked, some across international borders.
Forensic scientists in the United States and Spain say they are ready to help free of charge. All they need are DNA samples from family members of the missing schoolgirls.
“We would do this absolutely for nothing,” said Arthur Eisenberg, chairperson of the department of molecular and medical genetics at the University of North Texas (UNT). “This is clearly a humanitarian effort,” said Eisenberg, who heads the UNT Center for Human Identification, the laboratory that works with a 10-year-old international programme called DNA-Prokids, which aims to reunite families and deter human trafficking.
The girls’ family members – mothers, fathers or other close relatives – would provide a DNA sample by swabbing the inside of their mouths with a cotton bud or giving a blood sample. Then Eisenberg and his colleagues could establish DNA profiles for the families using a software system called M-FISys (pronounced “emphasis”).
The software was developed in the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks to help forensic scientists in New York City meet the challenge of matching nearly 20 000 samples of recovered human remains to the more than 2 700 people who died in the twin towers. No such software existed prior to 9/11, when forensic experts were overwhelmed by the scale of the identification effort and Excel spreadsheets were not sophisticated enough.
M-FISys protects the identities of the missing by encrypting unidentified DNA profiles, thereby avoiding potential diplomatic conflicts when cases cross borders. “No one is giving up any confidential information that they might not be able to under their local statutes,” said M-FISys developer Howard Cash. That capability is important because the group that took responsibility for the kidnapping, an Islamist faction called Boko Haram that is opposed to Western education, has threatened to “sell them in the market”.
The US state department said there were indications that the girls, taken from Chibok on April 14, had been moved into neighbouring countries. Local leaders have said the hostages, aged 16 to 18, were sold as brides to Islamist fighters in Cameroon and Chad. If true, it means a key part of the identification process may come down to the actions of good Samaritans.
Anyone who encountered a girl they suspected was one of those kidnapped could take a DNA sample from her mouth, blood or hair and give it to the authorities so it could be analysed to see if it matched any of the missing girls. Eisenberg and DNA-Prokids founder Jose Lorente said that if Nigeria does not have a forensic lab ready to handle this task, they could ship kits for collecting saliva, blood or hair samples, which could then be sent to their labs in the US or Spain.
Lorente, a forensic expert and doctor who heads the University of Granada Genetic Identification Laboratory, developed DNA-Prokids in 2004. He was motivated to use DNA to track missing children after seeing street kids begging for money while travelling internationally. The police told him that often these kids had been stolen or sold as babies. And after so many years had passed, their families would no longer recognise them, so they were unlikely ever to be found. “I started to think about the DNA,” he said. “There is a way to identify them.”
DNA-Prokids has since been implemented in Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and a handful of other countries.
Living in slavery
The programme is credited with helping halt a surge of illegal adoptions from Guatemala in the US, as well as identifying hundreds of illegally trafficked children. An estimated 27-million people are living in slavery around the world, in the second-largest international criminal industry after the drug trade.
Lorente and Eisenberg said they have offered their help to local authorities in Nigeria, where gunmen kidnapped another eight schoolgirls on Tuesday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to send an expert team to help with the search and rescue operation, an offer Nigeria accepted. – AFP