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World's first coeliac vaccine has the potential to improve the physical and mental health of sufferers

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According to recent evidence from the BBC, it’s estimated that 8.5 million people in the UK are now eating “gluten-free”.

Thanks to fashionable diets and lifestyle changes, the “gluten-free” market is absolutely booming, expanding into ranges at supermarkets and gluten-free alternative meals in restaurants and cafes. So, chances are, you probably know someone that’s gluten-free. A friend, or a friend of a friend at least, is avoiding gluten for whatever reason.

Image credit: Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images

What you might not know, is that 1% of the population eat gluten free because they don’t have a choice. 1 in 100 people have coeliac disease. Heard of it? Didn’t think so.

Pronounced “see-liac” and spelled “celiac” across the US and other countries, coeliac disease is a serious, lifelong autoimmune disease caused by the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues when gluten is ingested. The body struggles to properly absorb nutrients from food due to damage to the lining of the gut, which can lead to serious complications further down the line.

The bottom line is: coeliac disease is not an allergy or food intolerance. Yes, you can be gluten intolerant and have some mal-effects to eating certain strains of wheat or flour, but it doesn’t cause long-term damage. Sufferers of coeliac disease struggle to cope with the short- and potential long-term effects on a daily basis.

Image credit: Pixabay

In the short-term, if a coeliac ingests even the tiniest particles of food containing gluten, they’re stuck with painful diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting, stomach cramps and bloating, mouth ulcers, extreme fatigue (or as I like to call it "brain fog"), trouble sleeping, painful rashes, dry and itchy scalp, reflux, and anaemia. The list goes on and, of course, is completely dependent on the individual.

If they continue to eat gluten or aren’t strict with their diet, the long-term complications are huge. The potential for osteoporosis, neurological conditions such as gluten ataxia and neuropathy are increased, and while rare, there is a higher risk of small bowel cancer and intestinal lymphoma.

And that’s just the physical effects that we can see. As a relatively recently diagnosed coeliac, I’ve spent the last two years suffering from different anxieties - from finding safe restaurants to eat in, to the effect my disease has on the people around me - and it’s taken a huge hit on my mental health. The tiredness, complications in the form of horrible heartburn and acid reflux and persistent bloating make me feel low, crappy and completely unmotivated.

But not all hope is lost. Just this week, it’s been announced that scientists across the pond in Australia are working on a vaccine for coeliac disease. And it’s looking really promising.

Image credit: Pan American Health Organization, Flikr

Eight years after the Melbourne-designed injection Nexvax2 (catchy, right?) was shown to be safe in a small-scale patient trial, Australian scientists are running the first international trial of a vaccine which they hope will allow coeliacs to abandon their gluten-free diets completely.

The hope is that the treatment will preprogram the way a coeliac’s immune system toxically responds to the ingestion of gluten. That means, if this vaccine proves to be successful, diagnosed coeliacs would be able to abandon the strict, regimented gluten-free diet that is currently the only recognised medical treatment for the disease.

But honestly, for me, the most incredible thing that I can think of to come out of the success of this trial is removing the pain-stricken fear of trying to find food that’s safe for coeliacs to eat.

Do you know how many times I’ve been looked down upon by restaurant staff, supermarket workers and - sometimes even friends - when I try to explain why I need to eat gluten-free food which has not come into contact with any gluten-containing foods? Too many times to count.

And I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been told “it’s gluten-free” but it contains mustard flour - something which is not safe for coeliacs, “it’s gluten-free” but they’ve just taken the bread off the plate, “it’s gluten-free” but it was cut with the same knife they used to cut open a pie.

It doesn’t come from a place of malice, rather ignorance, but it still hurts. It hurts when you joke about “trying just a bit”, it hurts when you get on your high horse because we have to spend an extra 30 minutes researching safe places to eat, or saying we’re, ahem, “selfish, demanding and difficult to please”.

It’s important to remember, among all of the gluten-free warriors demanding lifestyle changes because it makes their skin look better, there are us coeliacs who just don’t want to be vomiting on the reg. And this advancement in science, albeit not a definite just yet, is a huge source of positivity and excitement for sufferers across the globe.

Let’s just hope that with this news, comes a wider understanding of the disease and greater awareness of its effects, both physical and emotional.

Do you think you may have coeliac disease? There are currently 500,000 people in the UK living with undiagnosed coeliac disease, without even knowing it. If you’ve been suffering with the symptoms outlined above, please speak to your local healthcare professional.

For more information on coeliac disease, please head to www.coeliac.org.uk

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