Did you know? Celiac Disease Around the World

By Van Waffle

While celiac disease is widely considered more common in Caucasian people, this view is changing. A few studies suggest developing countries and other ethnic communities may soon see a similar scale of epidemic.

Celiac disease first began rapidly increasing in Europe in the 1950s. Combined with the discovery of a genetic link, this supported the idea certain ethnic groups were predisposed. Now on the rise in the United States, celiac disease is more likely to be found in people of European descent. Some research based on screening suggests the disease is rare in Latin and African-American populations. Even African Americans with type I diabetes usually do not carry the gene for celiac disease, though the two diseases are commonly associated.

However, data from some developing countries tells a different story. One study found celiac disease may affect more than two percent of adults in Mexico City. Other studies from the Middle East and North Africa have found incidences as high as 1 percent. While it remains rare in Asia and the Pacific, an international working group predicts incidence there will soon rise. Frequently associated with better nutrition, celiac disease becomes apparent when living conditions improve.

More doctors are becoming aware patients may have damaged intestinal tissue without classic symptoms, even showing no symptoms at all. But if celiac disease is not suspected, it usually goes undiagnosed. Lack of awareness presents a particular problem in developing communities where doctors and resources are limited. People who fail to thrive are less likely to receive medical attention, especially women and children.

But even in North America celiac disease remains under-diagnosed in groups where it is considered unlikely. Some evidence suggests this may be the case for Americans of African and Latin descent.