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Coeliac awareness

Some 60,000 to 70,000 Kiwis live with coeliac disease but only 20% of that number know that they are.

According to Coeliac New Zealand family members of people with coeliac disease have an elevated risk of testing positive for the disease as the condition is genetic. The genetic link puts family members first in line for coeliac disease as someone living with the condition may have family members who may be at risk.

Coeliac disease is a permanent, autoimmune disorder caused by an intolerance or reaction to gluten – found in wheat, barley, oats and rye. It causes the body to produce antibodies which damage the lining of the small bowel and make it impossible for the body to absorb certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from food. If left undiagnosed it can lead to long-term chronic ill-health.

Coeliac New Zealand Acting President Pip McKay says that the organisation has a simple message this year, ‘Test, Treat, Eat’.

“Coeliac disease is genetic so if you have the condition other family members may be at risk. Visit your GP and ask for a simple test for coeliac disease. This simple test will be the first step to improved health for you and your family,” says Pip.

“We still have such a long way to go in terms of awareness in New Zealand and globally. So many new cases of coeliac disease go unnoticed each year. There are thousands of New Zealanders affected and approximately 80 per cent of them don’t know they have the condition,” she says.

Research from around the world shows that coeliac disease is becoming increasingly common due to better testing for the disease.

Professor Andrew Day, paediatric gastroenterologist at Otago University says cereals in our diet can, in the right circumstances, set up a focused immune reaction in the surface of the small bowel. This leads to dramatic changes in the structure of the bowel, which in turns interferes with how the bowel works.

“Although some people have many symptoms with coeliac disease including stomach pain, loose bowel motions, or weight loss, other people may have subtle symptoms such as tiredness, low iron levels, mouth ulcers or infertility and some people may not have any recognisable symptoms at all.”

“Health professionals need to be more aware of the wide variation in how coeliac disease can manifest and to have a low threshold to do initial tests to check for possible coeliac disease,” he says.

“The initial tests to look for coeliac disease are blood tests, these are widely available around New Zealand and the results usually come back within a few days.”

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing symptoms of coeliac disease, contact your GP for more information or visit