NEW DELHI, KOMPAS.com – Apu Sarker showed his palm.
Everything seemed normal at first, but on closer inspection it had a smooth surface on the tips of its fingers.
Apu, who is 22 years old, lives with his family in a village in the northern district of Rajshahi.
He is currently working as a medical assistant. Meanwhile, his father and grandfather were farmers.
When his grandfather was young, not having fingerprints was not a big problem.
“I think he never considered it a problem,” said Apu as quoted from BBC Indonesia on Monday (28/12/2020).
Modern era problems
But in today’s modern era, the tiny grooves that rotate around the tip of a human finger in general, known as dermatoglyphs, have become the world’s most widely collected biometric data.
We use it for everything from things to do at airports to voting in elections and unlocking our smartphones.
In 2008, when Apu was a child, Bangladesh introduced a national identity card for adults with a database that required a thumbprint.
The confused officers didn’t know how to process the identity card for Apu’s father, Amal Sarker.
Finally, he received a card with the stamp “WITHOUT FINGERPRINT“.
In 2010, fingerprints became a mandatory requirement for passports and driving licenses (SIM).
After several tries, Amal was able to get a passport by showing a certificate from the health agency.
He never used it, partly because he was afraid he might have trouble at the airport.
And although riding a motorbike was essential for farming work, he never had a driver’s license.
“I’ve paid the fee, passed the exam, but they didn’t issue a permit because I couldn’t provide fingerprints,” he said.
Amal carries a receipt for the payment of her driver’s license, but doesn’t always help her when the police stop on the street. He has been fined twice.
He explained his condition to the two confused officers and raised the tips of his soft fingers so they could see. However, his efforts did not make him free from fines.
“It’s always been an embarrassing experience for me,” said Amal.
In 2016, the government of Bangladesh made fingerprint matching with a national database mandatory for those who wish to get a Sim card for their cell phone.
“They looked confused when I came to buy a Sim (card), their software crashes every time I put my finger on the sensor,” said Apu with a wry smile.
Apu’s desire to get a Sim card was rejected, and all male members in her family now use a Sim card issued in her mother’s name.
Immigration delay disease
The rare condition experienced by the Sarker family is called Adermatoglyphia.
It first became widely known in 2007 when Peter Itin, a dermatologist in Switzerland, was contacted by a woman who was having trouble entering the US.
His face matched the photo in his passport, but the customs officer could not record any fingerprints, because he did not have one.
After examination, Professor Itin found that the woman and 8 members of her family both had unique conditions, namely flat finger surfaces and reduced number of sweat glands on the hands.
Working with another dermatologist, Eli Sprecher, and graduate student Janna Nousbeck, Professor Itin looked at DNA from 16 family members
seven of them had fingerprints, while nine of them had no fingerprints.
“The cases are very rare, and no more than a few families are documented,” Prof Itin told BBC.
In 2011, the team found one gene, SMARCAD1, that was mutated in 9 family members without fingerprints.
They identified it as the cause rare disease the. Almost nothing was known about the gene at the time.
The mutations do not appear to cause any ill health effects, apart from the effects on the hands.
The mutations they studied over the years affected genes that “no one knew,” said professor Sprecher, so it took years to find them.
Plus, mutations affect very specific parts of the gene, he said, “which do not seem to work, in genes that do not work”.
Once discovered, the disease was called Adermatoglyphia, but Prof. Itin dubbed it an “immigration delay disease”, after her first patient had difficulty getting to the US.
Old attendance system
Immigration delay disease can affect several generations in a family.
Apu Sarker’s uncle, Gopesh, who lives in Dinajpur, 350 km from Dhaka, had to wait two years to get approval for his passport, Apu said.
“I have had to travel to Dhaka four or five times in the last two years to convince them that I really have the disease,” said Gopesh.
When his office started using the fingerprint attendance system, Gopesh had to convince his boss to allow him to use the old system, signing the timesheet every day.
A dermatologist in Bangladesh had diagnosed the family condition as congenital palmoplantar keratoderma, which Prof Itin said developed into secondary Adermatoglyphics.
Secondary adermatoglyphics are a version of the disease that can also cause dry skin and reduced sweating on the palms and feet, which were the symptoms the Sarker family reported on.
More testing is needed to confirm that the family has some form of Adermatoglyphia.
However, Professor Sprecher said his team would be “very happy” to help the family with genetic testing.
The results of the tests may provide reassurance for the Sarkers, but they are no relief from the daily struggles of exploring a world without fingerprints.
People are not friendly
For the Sarker family, who is suffering from this rare condition, the community seems to be becoming more hostile rather than accommodating to their condition.
Amal Sarker lived most of her life without too much trouble, she said, but she felt sorry for her children.
“This is not my hand, this is something I inherited,” he said.
“But how the kids and I get into all kinds of problems, for me, it hurts a lot,” he added.
Recently Amal and Apu got a new type of identity card issued by the Bangladeshi government after they presented a medical certificate.
The card also uses biometric data, retina and facial scans.
However, they still can’t buy a Sim card or get a SIM, whereas the process of getting a passport is a long and tedious process.
“I am tired of explaining the situation again and again. I asked many people for advice, but none of them could give me a definite answer,” said Apu.
“Someone advised me to go to court. If all options fail, that’s probably what I will do.”
Apu hopes he can get a passport, he said. He wants to travel outside Bangladesh. He just needs to start submitting the application.