The rising awareness of the incidence of coeliac disease in the community has resulted from the growing number of people being diagnosed with the disease.
Despite this, it remains one of Australia’s most under-diagnosed conditions with research showing more than 250,000 Australians are unaware they are living with the disease.
Undiagnosed coeliac disease is associated with an increased risk of other conditions – infertility, osteoporosis, lymphoma, higher risk of other autoimmune conditions and early diagnosis helps to reduce these risks for patients.
The disease affects about one in 70 Australians and worryingly the incidence of coeliac disease is on the rise. In 1994, it was thought that one in 5000 people had coeliac disease; now it’s one in 70 Australians. This is due in part to the availability of better diagnostic tests for coeliac disease but according to Coeliac Australia, there has also been a true increase in the number of people with coeliac disease.
Coeliac disease affects people of all ages, both male and female.
Testing for coeliac is important because one of the problems behind the under-diagnosis of coeliac disease is that the symptoms vary considerably. Some people experience severe symptoms while others may have no obvious symptoms at all.
Unfortunately, at present the only known treatment for coeliac disease is to follow a strict diet of eating only products that are gluten free. On the plus side, as awareness of the disease becomes widespread, more and more gluten-free products are being made widely available.
The need to remain gluten free underlies the treatment because the immune system in people with coeliac disease reacts abnormally to gluten and causes small bowel damage. The tiny projections lining the bowel become inflamed and flattened, reducing the surface area of the bowel available for nutrient absorption. As a result, a number of serious health consequences can result if the condition is not diagnosed and treated properly.
Environmental factors – including a previous gastrointestinal infection (such as a rotavirus infection), or a person’s diet during early childhood – can play an important role in triggering coeliac disease.
Further complicating the issue is that signs and symptoms of coeliac disease vary from person to person because of numerous factors, including the length of time a person was breastfed as an infant with some studies showing the longer an infant is breastfed, the later the symptoms of coeliac disease appear.
If you have concerns and may be displaying some of the symptoms, have a talk to your community pharmacist. Your pharmacist is your healthcare professional and can offer advice and refer you to your doctor if appropriate or necessary. Your pharmacist can also provide advice on lifestyle management which may assist in helping sufferers enjoy a better quality of life.