Conjoined Twins To Undergo Separation Surgery in Saudi Arabia

Infant sisters joined at the torso may undergo surgery to separate them.  

The five-month-old conjoined twins from Tanzania arrived in Saudi Arabia Tuesday for medical treatment that could give them each individual bodies. Their treatment comes courtesy of Saudi King Salman’s humanitarian aid program, the Saudi Gazette reported.

The babies, named Anisia and Melnis, traveled with their mother from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz Medical City, where they will receive examinations to determine whether doctors can perform the separation surgery safely.

Anisia and Melnis share three lower limbs, but it’s unclear what internal organs they share.

Conjoined twins, who develop when an embryo splits only partially to produce two fetuses with shared body parts, occur once for every 200,000 births. Forty to 60 percent are stillborn, however, while another 35 percent don’t survive more than one day. The twins who make it to childhood face a survival rate of five to 25 percent, CBS News reported.

Another set of Tanzanian conjoined twins who came to fame in their home country died earlier in June. Sisters Maria and Consolata Mwakikuti passed away at 21 after Maria was diagnosed with a respiratory disorder, the result of an inoperable chest deformity. The two were cared for by a congregation of nuns at the Consolata Regional Hospital, where their parents abandoned them after they were born. They were attending university at the time of their passing and hoped to teach after graduation, they told BBC News.

Tanzanian president John Magufuli had visited the twins in the hospital shortly before their deaths, he wrote in a tweet, and said “their dream was to serve” their country.

RTR2CWRB Doctors examine the x-ray of conjoined twins in April 2010 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Conjoined five-month-old sisters from Tanzania traveled to Saudi Arabia for a potential surgery to separate them. (Photo by REUTERS/Kena Betancur)

Scientists have yet to explain why parents of certain races, geographic locations, socioeconomic statuses and predisposing genetic and environmental factors are more likely to deliver conjoined twins. But once the twins are born, their survival depends on what organs they share and their physical and social locations.

Conjoined twins’ survival chances immediately before and after birth largely depend on the area in which they were born in. In a Zambian case study of conjoined births, researchers wrote that the developing world often lacks obstetric and gynecological services, and most deliveries are carried out without medical supervision, so even those who survive birth face a high risk of future unforeseen health concerns.

Some parents of conjoined twins shun treatment due to the stigma. In an East African country, parents of conjoined twin girls couldn’t leave their home East African country to seek medical help and maintained their anonymity even after traveling to Massachusetts for a separation surgery. Ultimately, only one of the twins survived the surgery, their doctor told NPR.  

Separation surgeries aren’t performed often, genetic researchers wrote in a 2011 paper, since they often present harrowing ethical decisions. Since the twins share organs, one or both are at a significantly high risk of death during the procedure.

But sharing a body doesn’t guarantee a truncated life: many conjoined twins live well into adulthood, according to Seattle Children’s Hospital. TLC reality stars Abby and Brittany Hensel, 28, share a fifth-grade classroom as co-teachers. Ronnie and Donnie Gaylon, brothers from Dayton, Ohio, are the oldest-living conjoined twins at 66.

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