Adult coeliac disease: Prevalence and clinical significance


Correspondence: DrHbCook Department of Gastroenterology, Christchurch Hospital, PO Box 4710, Christchurch, New Zealand. Email:


Background and Aims: Although coeliac disease is a common condition, the role of population screening is not clear. The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence and clinical significance of coeliac disease in the adult population of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Methods: A total of 1064 adults randomly selected from the 1996 Christchurch electoral rolls were enlisted. The subjects were screened for coeliac disease using the anti-endomysial antibody test (EMA), and all those with positive tests were reviewed and underwent a small bowel biopsy.

Results: Twelve of the 1064 persons tested (1.1%) were EMA positive and all had small bowel biopsy histology consistent with coeliac disease. Two of the 12 subjects were previously known to be EMA positive although neither had a small bowel biopsy. One additional subject with known and treated coeliac disease was also enrolled but was EMA negative. Thus, the overall prevalence of coeliac disease was 13 of 1064 subjects (1.2%, or 1 : 82), 10 of whom were newly diagnosed (0.9%, or 1 : 106) and three were previously known or suspected to have coeliac disease (0.3%, or 1 : 355). The prevalence in both sexes was similar. Nine of the 12 EMA-positive coeliac disease subjects identified by the use of screening reported symptoms, of which tiredness and lethargy were the most common. The subjects were of normal stature, although females tended to be lean. None of the subjects were anaemic, but four were iron deficient and four folate deficient. Five of the 12 had sustained bone fractures. Bone mineral density was reduced in males but not in females.

Conclusions: The prevalence of coeliac disease in the adult population of Christchurch, New Zealand, is 1.2%. Unrecognized coeliac disease which was detected by population screening was three-fold more common than proven or suspected coeliac disease. Population screening may identify subjects who could benefit from treatment.