Celiac sufferers in Maccabi HMO up 600% in less than 20 years, study shows

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

The number of members of the Maccabi health maintenance organization with celiac disease has risen six-fold since 2005, with kids hit especially hard, according to data released by Maccabi Healthcare Services’ KSM Research and Innovation Center to mark International Celiac Awareness Day.

The study shows that 0.84 percent of Maccabi members (approximately 22,000 individuals) have been diagnosed with celiac disease, up from 0.14% in 2005. Among children and adolescents up to age 18, this number increased from 0.12% to 1.56%, more than a 10-fold increase in the period examined. Maccabi researchers predict that in 2030, one out of every 50 Israeli children and teenagers will have been diagnosed with the disease.

Celiac disease is a serious, largely genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. Removing gluten, a major component of wheat, rye, and barley, from a celiac disease patient’s diet often cures — or at least alleviates — their symptoms and the damage to the lining of the small intestine.

Bread for sale, some of which is subsidized by the government, at a Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem on July 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to other disorders including infertility, reduced bone density, neurological disorders, some cancers, and other autoimmune diseases. Celiac disease has been on the rise globally in recent decades, with studies indicating that around 1.4% of the world’s population has celiac disease, with it being more common among women and children and more prevalent in some parts of the world than others.

According to Dr. Tal Patalon, head of KSM Research and Innovation Center, some hypothesize that the increase in celiac disease prevalence can be attributed to increased exposure to processed food, especially at young ages.

“However, this is still a hypothesis. It is of great importance to conduct studies on environmental exposures and their impact on chronic diseases, with the understanding that health and well-being must be studied in a multidimensional way, including examination of the effects of nutrition, lifestyle, and the environment,” Patalon said.

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