Researchers Find Celiac Disease is More Common in the U.S. Than Previously Thought
Nearly one out of every 150 Americans suffers from celiac disease, according to new research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. People who have the genetic disorder are unable to eat foods that contain the protein gluten, which is found in wheat and other grains. The disorder can cause severe intestinal problems, but few people -- even those who have the disorder -- have ever heard of it.
To increase awareness of celiac disease, Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl quarterback Rich Gannon is joining the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research to launch a nationwide public service campaign.
Gannon, who serves as the national spokesperson, recorded a public service announcement for television with his three-year-old daughter Danielle, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1998. Gannon kicked off the campaign on July 6 with a press conference at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
"Danielle was really sick and at first no one knew what was wrong with her. We went for test after test, until she was finally diagnosed with celiac disease" says Gannon.
"We want people to know that celiac disease is a real problem, but that there is no need to suffer with it," explains Gannon. In conjunction with the public service campaign, the Gluten Free Pantry, a Connecticut-based company that makes gluten-free foods, is marketing a gluten-free cake mix called "Danielle's Decadent Chocolate Cake." A portion of the sales will be donated to the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. Friends of Celiac Disease Research, a Wisconsin-based grassroots organization headed by Ellen Schlossmann, is helping to fund the awareness campaign and paid for the production of the PSA.
"Celiac disease may be one of the most common genetically based disorders," says Alessio Fasano, M.D., co-director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. "If you add together all of the people with Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and cystic fibrosis, you would only have half of the number of people with celiac disease," adds Dr. Fasano, who is also professor of pediatrics, medicine, and physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and director of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.
In people with celiac disease, the gluten sets off an autoimmune reaction in the intestines that can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, malabsorption of nutrients, and other gastrointestinal problems, including cancer. While experts estimate that more than one million Americans have celiac disease, most suffer without treatment because they are never diagnosed. Celiac disease can be treated by avoiding all foods with gluten. Dr. Fasano and his research team recently completed a study to determine the extent of celiac disease in the U.S. The researchers screened 10,000 people for specific gluten antibodies using a simple blood test. Celiac sufferers produce the antibodies to attack the gluten, but the same antibodies also attack the intestine and cause damage.
A biopsy of the intestine is needed to make a final diagnosis. Preliminary results show that as many as one out of every 150 Americans has celiac disease. Originally, doctors believed the disease affected only one out of every 7,000 Americans.
Detailed findings from the study will be presented at the Ninth Annual International Symposium on Celiac Disease, to be held August 10-13, 2000, at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn near Baltimore. The University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Center for Celiac Research are hosting this year's conference.
Dr. Fasano encourages more testing for celiac disease in the U.S. "In Europe, celiac disease is widely known and can usually be diagnosed in 3 to 4 weeks. In the U.S., people often suffer for 12 to 14 years before they are ever even tested for celiac disease," says Dr. Fasano.
"American doctors have the knowledge and the training, but we're not testing for celiac disease. The problem is that the disorder causes many vague symptoms, and we are not used to thinking about celiac disease as the cause. We need to change our thinking, but we are confident that this awareness campaign and Mr. Gannon's support will encourage people to start looking at celiac disease more closely," adds Dr. Fasano.
To learn more about celiac disease or take part in a screening, you can contact the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research at 800-492-5538. You can also visit their website at www.celiaccenter.org.
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