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Doctors urge Franco-Americans to get checked for dangerous French-Canadian disease

Some U.S. doctors are urging patients to get checked out for a potentially deadly genetic disease they say was passed down from French-Canadian forefathers.

The hereditary ailment causes dangerously high cholesterol levels and is particularly prevalent in certain parts of Quebec.

Maine cardiologist Dr. Robert Weiss said there is an unusually high number of cases of the disease in the region near the city of Lewiston, which welcomed waves of French-Canadian migrant workers in the late 1800s.

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Mr. Weiss encourages area residents with francophone ancestors to get tested for familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) — even if they have no family history of cholesterol problems.

He and his colleagues even hosted an information session on the disorder titled, "The French Connection," during a local Franco-American festival.

"When they're the children, or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of these people, they should be checked as part of their normal exams as they grow up," Mr. Weiss said in an interview from Auburn, ME.

"We'd like people to get checked when they're five years old."

He noted that physicians have treated FH for decades, but many people don't know the disease can cause hardening arteries in those who are physically fit — even teenagers.

One of Mr. Weiss' colleagues told a Lewiston newspaper that the area has about 10 times the rate of the ailment as the rest of the United States, or about one in every 30 to 50 people.

"You'll see people in their 40s — even in their late 30s — who will have actual heart attacks, not just warning signs, but actual events," said Mr. Weiss, a practising cardiologist who has conducted clinical research on FH for 25 years.

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He added that FH has become increasingly treatable with medication.

In some corners of Quebec, meanwhile, the rate of the disease is more than six times higher than the worldwide average, says Quebec City physician Patrick Couture.

Mr. Couture said all people with FH — even children as young as 10 — should take medication to control their cholesterol.

"Without medication, I would say it's impossible to bring cholesterol down to a normal level," he said.

There are two forms of FH: heterozygous and the rarer, more serious homozygous.

Mr. Couture said people with the heterozygous type usually have bad cholesterol levels two to three times higher than normal. Those with homozygous have levels six to eight times more than average, he added.

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