U official to march against celiac disease

Elizabeth Putnam

The staples of a college diet typically include pizza and beer. But for those suffering from celiac, these items can be toxic to the body and destroy the digestive tract.

Celiac is a relatively obscure disease, but research shows it affects anywhere from 1 in 150 to 250 people.

Anne D’Angelo King, College of Continuing Education program director, was diagnosed with the disease in December 2000.

King and hundreds of people with the disease, and their supporters, will walk three miles Saturday in the International Walk for Celiac Disease, which organizers hope will become a yearly event.

The event “Making Tracks for Celiacs” begins at 10 a.m. at Boom Island in Minneapolis.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac, which can afflict all ages and both genders, destroys the intestines and interferes with nutrient absorption. The body can’t tolerate gluten, a protein inside wheat, oats, barley and rye. Without the mineral absorption, celiac patients can become malnourished.

Rich Gannon, the Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl quarterback whose daughter has celiac disease, is scheduled to attend Saturday’s event.

Organizers hope the walk will raise money for researching the disease, King said.

King’s diagnosis came after a three-year stint working at the U.S. Embassy in the former Soviet Union. Upon returning to live in Washington, D.C., she began to feel lethargic every day.

“I thought my run-down feeling had a lot to do with living in a developing country,” she said.

King suffered from anemia and was unable to absorb iron supplements.

After several tests, including having a camera scope inside her stomach, King was diagnosed with a disease of which she had never heard.

Celiac disease is widely diagnosed in Europe and is believed to be underreported in the United States, according to the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.

Alessio Fasano, the center’s co-director, said the disease might be one of the most common genetic disorders.

“If you add together all of the people with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and cystic fibrosis, you would only have half of the number of people with celiac disease,” Fasano said.

The diagnosis means King is forced to adhere to a gluten-free diet – avoiding many of the foods she had typically enjoyed eating.

Cereal, ice cream, soup, bread and pasta all contain gluten. Everyday products such as medicines, vitamins, makeup, postage stamp and envelope glue, and toothpaste can be prohibited, depending on the product.

King had little information about gluten-free food and began reading food labels and calling manufacturers to get more specific product ingredient information.

“Gluten can be hidden in the ingredients,” King said. “If something says ‘natural flavoring’ on it, very much could have gluten in it.”

King said restaurant dining is especially challenging.

“People don’t necessarily know what gluten is,” she said. “I usually try to identify something on the menu that looks easy and then ask for specific ingredients.”

The disease is difficult to diagnose because symptoms can be dormant, and they vary in each person. Symptoms can include weight loss, fatigue, unexplained anemia and seizures.

King remembers suffering from excessive fatigue in high school.

“I was very active in sports, but I wasn’t able to keep from being so worn down,” she said.

Although the disease is genetic, King said, no one in her family has been tested. However, she said, there could be a link between celiac and her father, who died of Hodgkin’s disease when she was 13.

Fasano said research on the disease includes working toward a cure, finding vaccines, implementing more diagnostic tools and educating health care professionals and the public.

“The challenge is to diagnose it because someone might have it for many, many years,” Fasano said. “The disease is very silent.”

Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]