Data provided by the social sciences as well as genetic research suggest that the 8-10 million Roma (Gypsies) who live in Europe today are best described as a conglomerate of genetically isolated founder populations. The relationship between the traditional social structure observed by the Roma, where the Group is the primary unit, and the boundaries, demographic history and biological relatedness of the diverse founder populations appears complex and has not been addressed by population genetic studies.
Recent medical genetic research has identified a number of novel, or previously known but rare conditions, caused by private founder mutations. A summary of the findings, provided in this review, should assist diagnosis and counselling in affected families, and promote future collaborative research. The available incomplete epidemiological data suggest a non-random distribution of disease-causing mutations among Romani groups.
Although far from systematic, the published information indicates that medical genetics has an important role to play in improving the health of this underprivileged and forgotten people of Europe. Reported carrier rates for some Mendelian disorders are in the range of 5 -15%, sufficient to justify newborn screening and early treatment, or community-based education and carrier testing programs for disorders where no therapy is currently available. To be most productive, future studies of the epidemiology of single gene disorders should take social organisation and cultural anthropology into consideration, thus allowing the targeting of public health programs and contributing to the understanding of population structure and demographic history of the Roma.