Coeliac disease in the year 2000: exploring the iceberg

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It is now generally believed that subclinical coeliac disease is common in the general population.We have undertaken screening for this disorder in a school district in central Italy. Screening was divided into three levels: first, IgG and IgA antigliadin antibody (AGA) assay on capillary blood obtained by finger prick; second, AGA plus IgA anti-endomysium antibody (AEA) test and measurement of serum immunoglobulins in venous blood; and third, intestinal biopsy.

3351 students (66% of the eligible population) aged 11-15 years attended first-level screening. 71 (2%) were recalled because of AGA positivity; 18 of these satisfied second-level criteria and underwent intestinal biopsy. Coeliac disease was diagnosed in 11 subjects, most of whom had no serious symptoms. Selective IgA deficiency was found in 4 subjects, 1 of whom also had coeliac disease. The prevalence of subclinical coeliac disease in the study group was 3.28 per 1000.

Coeliac disease screening is feasible and involves only slight discomfort to the general population.Such screening can detect large numbers of cases of coeliac disease, which can be treated with a gluten-free diet. Many subclinical cases of coeliac disease would not be detected by screening only a selected group of at-risk patients.

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