Every May, Celiac Disease Awareness Month increases the public’s knowledge of the autoimmune disorder celiac disease. According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, “When a person who has celiac disease consumes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, the individual’s immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients into the body.” Those with the disease must adhere to a strict, no-gluten diet, as there is no current cure. Complications including infertility and osteoporosis can occur if the individual is not tested and treated, so awareness is crucial.
History of Celiac Disease Awareness Month
The history of celiac disease reaches all the way back to the Neolithic period, around 9500 BCE, when humans began to cultivate grains. However, there was no name given to the disease until 100AD, when the Greek physician Areteaus first described celiac disease as ‘koiliakous,’ or abdominal infection. Though he may have correctly pinpointed some aspects of the disease, he had a long way to go – he thought one of the possible causes was simply consuming too much cold water.
Samuel Gee, an English pediatrician, gave the first modern definition of celiac disease in 1887 in a lecture at Hospital for Sick Children in London. Still, however, science had not landed on what it was in the diet that exactly caused these debilitating digestive issues.
American physician Christian Herter came slightly closer in his book on childhood celiac disease, published in 1908. He noted that fat was better tolerated by the body than carbohydrates. In the 1920s, American pediatrician Sidney Haas continued to experiment with dietary changes for those with celiac and championed the “banana diet” as the cure. He didn’t seem to think it was important that while the diet focused on bananas, carbohydrates were notably left out – there was an incorrect conclusion drawn from correlation.
During the Dutch famine in the 1940s, flour was scarce and Dutch physician Willem Dicke finally made the carbohydrate connection. The specific role played by gluten in celiac disease was ultimately determined by a team of English researchers in 1952.
Between 1960 and 1965, more qualities of celiac were discovered, and its formal character was written by a panel of doctors in the late 1960s. The one thing that these criteria did not account for was the fact that children often had antibodies in their blood after eating gluten. The next 20 years saw extensive research into the genetic and autoimmune qualities of the illness, and by the 1990s celiac disease was officially recognized as an autoimmune disorder.
Today, even with ever-improving science and technology, there is no cure for celiac disease. Those who have the autoimmune disorder, show symptoms, and are tested must adopt a gluten-free diet. However, many individuals with celiac disease are never tested and sometimes never even symptomatic. Celiac Disease Awareness Month helps to raise money for research into a cure.