Coeliac disease far more common than thought

By Wright Communications

Coeliac disease is a permanent, autoimmune disorder caused by an intolerance to gluten - found in wheat, barley, oats and rye - and causes the body to produce antibodies which damage the lining of the small bowel and make it impossible for the body to absorb certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from food.

A recent Australian population study has revealed that coeliac disease is 40% more prevalent in Australian women and 25% more prevalent in Australian men than previously thought.[1]

New Zealand-born and trained gastroenterologist Dr Bob Anderson was involved in the research and says that based on this Australian study, and assuming the prevalence of coeliac disease is similar in New Zealand, then it would be expected that almost 65,000 Kiwis may have the disease.[2]

Conducted in 2013 the study supports research from around the world that coeliac disease is becoming increasingly common even above the rise due to greater awareness and better testing for the disease.

Former Shortland Street actress, Rachel Forman (31), has the disease and says finding out what was making her sick and tired was a revelation, however, it's not a diet she would choose.

"For years I suffered from a raft of sporadic symptoms such as lack of energy and recurrent urinary tract infections which never seemed connected with my consumption of gluten," Rachel says.

"I'd go for weeks eating gluten products and feel fine and then all of a sudden the strange symptoms would appear, I never thought the symptoms were consistent with eating gluten."

"I was finally, officially, diagnosed with coeliac disease in 2009 following a blood test and small bowel biopsy which gave me the confirmation I needed to follow a strict gluten-free diet," she says.

"But it's not a diet I would choose, people who don't understand coeliac disease think that if you say you are gluten-free that you are just part of the, currently trendy,  gluten-free diet fad, but actually for many coeliacs it's a life-threatening illness," Rachel admits.

Coeliac New Zealand's Coeliac Awareness Week kicks off on May 19 this year with the aim of increasing understanding of the disease among New Zealanders and also among the medical fraternity.

President of Coeliac New Zealand, Terry Hoskins, says that so many new cases of coeliac disease go unnoticed each year because the symptoms and diagnosis of the disease are not clear cut.

"Thousands of people go to their GP each year because they feel sick and tired," says Terry.

"Being sick and tired are symptoms of so many conditions as well as of our ever-increasing, busy lifestyles.

"However, if someone has been this way for a long time and is plain sick and tired of feeling sick and tired then they should ask their GP for further investigations to be done," Terry says.

Auckland and Cantabrian volunteers who have been medically-confirmed with coeliac disease are currently participating in clinical studies into a new vaccine, Nexvax2, which aims to restore tolerance to gluten.

"The long and the short of it is, that in the medical world globally there is, and will be, a lot more focus on coeliac disease, which we welcome with open arms," says Terry.


Coeliac New Zealand is grateful to Rachel Forman for speaking out about her condition. In doing so she helps to raise awareness of coeliac disease, which is a main aim of Coeliac New Zealand, a national non-profit organisation based in Auckland.  It supports those with coeliac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis and those on a gluten-free diet through education and collaboration with gluten free manufacturers, medical professionals and supports research.  Coeliac New Zealand was established in 1973.



[1] Anderson, R.P et al. A novel serogenetic approach determines community prevalence of coeliac disease and informs of diagnostic pathways.

[2] By Dr Bob Anderson. Diagnostic and treatment developments. Coeliac Link, Autumn 2014

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