Can a Childhood Virus Trigger Celiac Disease?

A common intestinal virus contracted in early childhood appears to initiate the later development of celiac disease, according to a new report from Norway published in the British Medical Journal.

Because previous research had suggested that infections in the stomach or intestines might play a role in celiac disease, the researchers decided to investigate two common viruses—enterovirus, which is a usually mild virus of the digestive tract, and adenovirus, which typically causes cold-like symptoms but can also affect the bladder, stomach, and intestines. They began with 220 very young children (ages 3 months to 36 months) who showed a genetic makeup characteristic of most patients with celiac disease and then collected stool samples to see if the children had either of the two viruses. After that, the researchers conducted regular blood tests for celiac disease antibodies—first at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months and then every year for 10 years.

After 10 years, 25 of the 220 original children were diagnosed with celiac disease. The researchers found that enterovirus was significantly more frequent in the samples collected from these children. In other words, there was a significant relationship between exposure to enterovirus and later risk of developing celiac disease. No such relationship, however, was found between adenovirus and celiac disease.

The researchers cautioned that the number of children who eventually got celiac disease was limited, and they also said it was possible that unknown factors they didn’t measure could have played a role. Nevertheless, if further research corroborates their findings, identifying viruses as triggers in celiac disease might lead to prevention. As they put it, “If enterovirus is confirmed as a trigger factor, vaccination could reduce the risk of development of celiac disease.”

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