With celiac disease on the rise, researchers are racing to pin down any factors that may play a part. Recent attention has turned to the role of respiratory infections in at-risk children. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, which is a protein in wheat, rye, and barley, the immune system attacks the small intestine.

Villi, or small, finger-like projections that are vital for the absorption of nutrients, are damaged. In the United States, the exact prevalence of celiac disease is not known. However, some have estimated that it affects around 1 in 141 people, with a significant proportion not being aware that they even have it. Across the world, around 1 percent of the population is thought to have celiac disease, and that proportion seems to be growing. Although more cases are now picked up due to improved tests and detection rates, experts believe that the increase is not due to this factor alone. So, the race to understand why this condition is experiencing such a surge is on. Celiac disease runs in families; people with a first-degree relative with the condition have a 1 in 10 chance of developing it during their life. At present, it is not known why some at-risk people develop it while others do not, though it is assumed that environmental triggers set the wheels of celiac disease in motion. The number of at-risk children – or those with relatives who have celiac disease – who go on to develop the condition seems to be increasing. And recently, Dr. Renata Auricchio, from the University of Naples Federico II in Italy, set out to understand why this might be the case. Studies have pointed toward infections in childhood as a potential trigger of celiac disease in those who are genetically susceptible. For instance, a 2013 study found that the presence of rotavirus antibodies could predict the onset of celiac disease. Similarly, in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, children who had experienced 10 or more infections before reaching the age of 18 months had a significantly increased risk of developing celiac disease than children who had had four or fewer. Many earlier investigations into infections and celiac disease relied on parental recall of infections and have included a general cross-section of the population.

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