Gluten-free generation: Number of children with celiac disease doubled over past 25 years

ANCONA, Italy — The number of gluten intolerant children has doubled over the last 25 years, according to a new study. Children who suffer from celiac disease, one of the most common lifelong conditions in Europe, may not be getting the treatment they need because many have not been diagnosed, say scientists.

People with celiac disease produce antibodies to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, ingredients which are commonly used to make a variety of tasty foods such as bread, cakes, biscuits, pasta and some breakfast cereals. If they accidentally feast on gluten packed foods, these antibodies damage the gut lining and can lead to symptoms, including bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea and fatigue.

It can also cause blood diseases, fertility problems and osteoporosis, if they do not follow a strict gluten-free diet. In children, the condition has also been linked to poor growth and can delay puberty.

Now, researchers at Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona, Italy, have found the problem is much bigger than previously thought.

“Our study showed that prevalence of celiac disease in schoolchildren has doubled over the past 25 years when compared to figures reported by our team in a similar school age group,” says study author Elena Lionetti, a professor at the university, in a statement. “Our sentiment is that there are more cases of celiac disease than in the past, and that we could not discover them without a screening strategy.”

The discovery was made after a new screening program involving 7,760 schoolchildren was carried out in eight Italian provinces. A fingertip blood test was taken to see if the children had certain gene mutations which predisposes them to celiac disease. If they tested positive, the researchers then checked whether they had the antibodies to gluten. A formal diagnosis was then made using clinical criteria known as the ESPGHAN (European Society for Paediatric, Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition) criteria.

Millions of children with celiac disease may be undiagnosed

The researchers found 1.6 percent of children had celiac disease, which is much higher than the global average of around one percent.

“At the moment 70 per cent of celiac disease patients are going undiagnosed and this study shows that significantly more could be identified, and at an earlier stage, if screening were carried out in childhood with non-invasive screening tests,” says Lionetti. “Diagnosis and avoiding gluten could potentially prevent damage to the villi, finger-like projections that line the gut, which can lead to malabsorption of nutrients and long-term conditions such as growth problems, fatigue and osteoporosis.”

While around one percent of the U.S. population, or 3 million people have celiac disease. It’s estimated that 97% of those cases are undiagnosed, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.

Carrying out screening programs in schools could avoid a lot of suffering for those who slip through the net, the researchers say.

“The study has shown that screening is an effective tool for diagnosing coeliac disease in children which could potentially help avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering from what can be a hard-to-detect condition,” says Lionetti.

The findings were presented at the World Congress of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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