Coeliac Disease

The prevalence of coeliac disease is increasing worldwide. Previously thought to be a rare condition which affected only those of Northern European or Celtic descent, we now know that this is not the case. Overall it is estimated that about 1% of the adult population has coeliac disease, although it is as high as 2% in Finland. As well as Europeans, it affects people from many different countries including North India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Coeliac disease can occur at any age, but is more commonly diagnosed in people aged 40-60 years.

Coeliac disease is a multisystem autoimmune condition caused by an inappropriate immune response to the ingestion of gluten, a plant protein found mainly in wheat, barley and rye. The ingestion of gluten causes damage to the lining of the small bowel. This damage may cause gastrointestinal symptoms and can result in poor absorption of important nutrients such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. As coeliac disease is a multisystem disorder, non-gastrointestinal symptoms may also occur including tiredness, joint pain, ‘brain fog’ and skin rashes such as dermatitis herpetiformis. Some people have no symptoms. The only current treatment is a strict gluten free diet, although this is easier said than done. Good knowledge of what foods contain gluten, how to read food labels and avoiding cross contamination with gluten containing foods during food preparation are all important aspects of maintaining a gluten free diet. However, a vaccine is in development with the final stages of testing the effectiveness (Phase III clinical trial) being planned. 

We are currently undertaking coeliac disease research in the following areas:

  • Changing presentation patterns and annual rates of diagnosis of coeliac disease from the turn of the century in Christchurch
  • Outcomes of screening for coeliac disease in high risk groups such as type 1 diabetes
  • An evaluation of faecal and serum inflammatory markers in children with newly diagnosed coeliac disease
  • Recognition and management of coeliac disease among GPs and gastroenterologists in New Zealand
  • Determining the prevalence of diagnosed coeliac disease in a large general practice population
  • A description of the health of children with coeliac disease in New Zealand

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Michael Schultz

Director; Gastroenterologist