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Digestive disease called surprisingly common

©Associated Press
February 11, 2003

CHICAGO -- Celiac disease, a severe digestive disorder triggered by gluten in wheat and other grains, is more common among Americans than previously thought, affecting more than 1.5-million people, a study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Maryland, the University of Chicago and other institutions took blood samples from 13,145 mostly white adults and children, including nearly 9,000 people at risk for celiac because of symptoms or family history. Intestinal biopsies confirmed the diagnosis.

The disease was present in one out of 22 people who had a close relative with celiac and in one out of 133 participants who were not at risk.

Previous research suggested the disease occurred in about one in 4,000 people nationwide.

The new findings suggest that more than 1.5-million Americans are afflicted, the researchers said.

Sometimes called celiac sprue and often mistaken for other ailments, the disease can raise the risk of gastrointestinal cancer if left untreated.

The new findings, published in Monday's Archives of Internal Medicine, could lead to quicker diagnosis of the ailment, the researchers said.

"If physicians believe that celiac disease is rare, they are less likely to test for it," said Dr. Alessio Fasano of the University of Maryland, lead researcher.

Many doctors have considered celiac a childhood ailment, with symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, gas and weight loss. But it can show up at all ages, sometimes with nondigestive symptoms such as anemia and thinning bones, partly caused by the body's inability to absorb proper nutrients.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and other grains.

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