Photo of Apu Sarker, age 22, obtained from Mir Sabbir of BBC News
Apu Sarker is a 22-year-old male who lives with his family in a remote village along the northern district of Rajshahi, which is in Bangladesh. For those not too familiar with world geography, it is a country located in South Asia and is closest to countries like Myanmar (Burma), Bhutan, and Nepal.
Recently, Apu was working as a medical assistant, while his father and grandfather were farmers. The most curious thing about Apu’s family is the men of his family line. It seems that each male has a rare genetic mutation where they are all missing fingerprints.
It seems that at least 4 generations of his family have this extremely rare condition.
For a bit of context, this fingerprint problem was not much of a big deal back then. For example, with Apu’s grandfather, there wasn’t much need for them, especially since important paperwork was done more manually and remotely.
However, in recent decades, not having a fingerprint is increasingly a larger problem, especially when it comes to obtaining or issuing new government ID. Since things are digital now, you might need to provide a fingerprint to make sure you are who you say you are.
Furthermore, the grooves of our fingerprints are called dermatoglyphs, and is often a source of biometric data collection. It’s just a fancy way of verifying who you say you are.
Police need it for their fingerprint database. Government workers often need it when they issue you some new ID, like a renewed passport, a new driver’s licence, or a renewed health card. Airports need it to verify your identity, especially as you walk through the scanner.
Even more recently, people have started to use fingerprint scans just to log in to their phones, instead of using a typed password. If you’re a big fan of iPhones or Androids, you can set up these features — but only if you feel like it.
Back in 2008, young Apu and his dad Amal had a problem when it came to government-issued ID. Bangladesh had just introduced a National ID card program for all adults, and this database required a thumbprint.
However, since none of them had fingerprints, the government had to provide a card for Amal that had a stamp labelled “NO FINGERPRINT” on it.
In 2020, Bangladesh made fingerprints mandatory for all driver’s licenses and passports. It was a lengthy process that required multiple attempts but Amal was eventually able to get his passport by displaying a medical board certificate.
However, the Sarker family is fearful of actually using their passports because they are unsure if they will face further problems once they are at the actual airport.
In the meantime, since Amal was a farmer, he eventually needed to ride a motorbike as it is a required vehicle for those in that industry. However, he was unable to get his licence, despite paying the fee and passing the exam, all because a fingerprint couldn’t be provided.
Instead, Amal is forced to carry his licence fee payment receipt instead.
It has helped him out on some occasions but has also presented some embarrassing problems, too. For example, he was fined twice despite literally showing his fingers to the cops. While the cops were amused, they refused to waive the fine.
What is Causing This Genetic Condition?
It seems that the condition that the males of the Sarker family have is likely to be Adermatoglyphia.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s a rare skin condition where one has a lack of ridges on the skin of the toes, fingers, palms, and soles. Without it, you don’t have a unique fingerprint. You might also end up with other skin problems like white bumps on the face, and blistering of the skin.
Back in 2007, the term became somewhat known when Swiss dermatologist Dr. Peter Itin was contacted by a female in her late twenties who was struggling to get into the US.
While her face matched her passport photograph, the customs officers could not account for the missing fingerprints and she was denied entry.
Dr. Itin examined the woman alongside eight other members of her family. They all seemed to have Adermatoglyphia. Basically, they had a flat finger pad compared to other people and a reduced level of sweat glands.
In association with dermatologist Dr. Eli Sprecher and their graduate student Janna Nousbeck, Dr. Itin examined the DNA of at least 16 members of the whole family. For context, out of these 16 family members, at least seven had fingerprints and nine did not.
While Dr. Iitin found this to be a curious case where there is very little documentation, in 2011, the team had their breakthrough — they had found the main gene responsible.
This gene was identified as SMARCAD1.
It basically mutated within the family members who had no fingerprints, causing the whole situation to unfold. Outside of the social problems presented by the gene, Adermatoglyphia doesn’t appear to have any major health effects on those people.
Dr. Itin even acknowledged that there was likely very little research on this condition since it didn’t really bother anyone, and so there would be little need for the research, until in recent times, where technology and processes surrounding government-issued ID caused problems.
Once it was identified, it was called “Adermatoglyphia” but has since been jokingly (and now not-so-jokingly) dubbed the “immigration delay disease” because of the situations it puts fingerprint-less people in.
However, in Bangladesh, a dermatologist had diagnosed the family’s situation as congenital palmoplantar keratoderma (PPK), which is a group of skin conditions that can cause the palms of hands and soles of the feet to have thicker skin.
Usually, people try to treat it by putting in things like antifungal cream or tablets but it is basically a condition that is inherited from the previous generations.
Dr. Itin thinks PPK caused a secondary form of Adermatoglyphia for the Sarker family, where the skin is super dry and there is less sweat compared to other people.
As the days go by, Dr. Itin and Dr. Sprecher will need to do further genetic testing to determine if Adermatoglyphia is 100% at play. For now, they are more than willing to help the Sarker family out with genetic testing.
However, even with the consolation, it still doesn’t change the fact that the family still has many hurdles to go through.
To date, this condition can continue to affect future generations of the Sarker family, which might get worse across future social situations. For example, Apu’s uncle, Gopesh, had to wait 2 years to get a passport authorized.
Even then, Gopesh had to travel to the main city many times to convince them that he really had a medical condition that warranted a fingerprint-less situation.
It doesn’t help that not that many people know of this medical condition to begin with, and so it can easily cause disbelief.
Plus, for Uncle Gopesh, when he started working in his office, he had to plead with his supervisors to use the old-fashioned system of signing in an attendance sheet each day. Everyone else uses a fingerprint scan to enter their offices.
For now, the Sarker family has to sit tight, especially if others are unable to help them out with their condition.
While it isn’t a big deal compared to other conditions, Amal Sarker worries about the kind of troubles that the future generations may face. For example, they still struggle to get a SIM card or even get a driver’s licence.
However, there’s also hope — Apu and Amal were able to get a newer national card ID that relies on other biometric data like facial recognition and retinal scanning.
While it’s frustrating to have to explain your medical condition to so many people, perhaps further awareness will help the family, especially in the years ahead.