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The last decade has seen a surge of interest in celiac disease. One boost came in 2002 from a five-year study of more than 13,000 people led by Alessio Fasano, M.D., medical director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research. Prior to this research, it was assumed that celiac disease was very rare in the United States. However, Dr. Fasano’s study found a prevalence more consistent with the higher numbers in Europe, India and the rest of the Americas. Celiac disease was found in one out of every 68 adults with any celiac-related symptoms and in one of every 22 people who had first-degree relatives with the disorder. Of study participants not considered at-risk, one in 133 had the disease.
Two years later, the National Institutes of Health held a national conference on celiac disease. The resulting recommendations included increased education of medical professionals and the public about the disease and setting U.S. standards for labeling gluten-free foods. As a result, celiac diagnosis is increasing. Research suggests that it doubles every three years. (Gluten-free standards have been proposed, but the Food and Drug Administration has not yet finalized them.)
Experts estimate that as many as 3 million Americans (about 1 percent of the population) have celiac disease, but only 10 percent have been diagnosed. And like asthma and other autoimmune diseases, celiac seems to be on the rise. Research in the July 2009 issue of Gastroenterology underlines this increase. The study was based on blood samples taken from more than 9,000 Air Force recruits between 1948 and 1954. Led by the Mayo Clinic’s Joseph Murray, researchers tested the 50-year-old blood for antibodies generated by celiac disease. They found that 0.2 percent of the samples had them.