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Why the microbiome of Irish Travellers is important for everyone

3 Aug 2022

Why the microbiome of Irish Travellers is important for everyone

‘Why the microbiome of Irish Travellers is important for everyone’, a summary video of findings of research published by the prestigious journal Nature Medicine, was launched at Cork City Hall by Cllr Dan Boyle at 2pm, Thursday 21 July as part of Traveller Pride Week 2022. This research by APC Microbiome Ireland (APC), a world-renowned Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre based in University College Cork and Teagasc found that Irish Travellers have a gut microbiome which differs strikingly from that of the non-Traveller settled community. Most of the Travellers retain an ancient or non-industrialised type of microbiome which may protect from many chronic inflammatory disorders; this sets the scene for unravelling how scientists can leverage the microbiome to minimise chronic inflammatory disorders for society at large.

Why the microbiome of Irish Travellers is important for everyone

This important research was a close collaborative process led by the Traveller Visibility Group (TVG) and Travellers of North Cork. To learn that Travellers have a distinctly different microbiome is significant to the community as it reinforces the formal recognition in 2017 for Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the State. TVG’s  Director of Advocacy, Breda O’Donoghue says “the microbiome research has confirmed what we always knew, we need to preserve the traditional Traveller lifestyle as it is essential for the health and wellness of our community. We can see from the research that once a Traveller adapts to a settled lifestyle their microbiome is negatively affected.”

TVG Development Worker John O’Sullivan says “A sequence of legislative changes since 1963 has eroded Traveller culture making it almost impossible for a Traveller to continue the traditional lifestyle they were brought up with, including possession of horses. We hope this research will help us get support to restore some of our heritage and preserve our unique way of life.”

While this research has uncovered critical information that supports microbiome research addressing grand world challenges, what has been discovered to date is only the tip of the iceberg. Prof Fergus Shanahan was the founder director of APC Microbiome Ireland and is a Principal Investigator on the paper; he says “In my long career as a gastroenterologist I have never encountered a member of the Traveller Community presenting with inflammatory bowel disease. The research we have conducted has made it clear that the microbiome plays a definite role in a person’s predisposition to chronic inflammatory disorders; further investigation can help us leverage the microbiome in finding a solution for inflammatory bowel disease which affects 40,000 people in Ireland and 10m globally every year.”

Mary Cronin, a Social Scientist and College Lecturer in the School of Public Health, University College Cork has a background in Community Development with the Traveller community and has been a key advisor for the follow-on Science Foundation Ireland funded research dissemination project. She says “the ongoing collaboration between the Traveller community, the TVG and the APC aims to generate new knowledge to address the wider determinants of Traveller health including mental health. Shockingly, a 2020 review by the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine revealed that while Irish Travellers constitute less than 1% of the Irish population, they account for 10% of national young adult male suicide statistics. We are at a critical time to address the health crises in the Traveller Community.”

A public information leaflet detailing the research project has been created by artist Laura Gowers. Available to view here.

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Host Logos - UCC and Teagasc

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APC Microbiome Ireland

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