Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder causing an inflammatory reaction in the gut to wheat protein (gluten) generally affects around 0.5-2% of the population. In Sweden, between 1984 and 1996, there was a four-fold increase in cases, and the rates then fell as quickly as they rose. But why? The suspicion fell on vaccines, perhaps linked with their impact on the immune system, so a team of Swedish researchers looked at medical records to unpack whether there really was a cause and effect between changes in the vaccination patterns and the spike in disease.
The researchers, from Umeå University and the National Swedish Childhood Celiac Disease Register, looked at child health clinic records and questionnaires, and cross-referenced the results with different vaccinations, including diphtheria and tetanus, whooping cough, polio, Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib), MMR, and BCG (tuberculosis). They found that celiac disease rates declined with the introduction of the whooping cough vaccine, but this was coincidental, as there was no actual association between celiac disease and whooping cough, MMR or Hib vaccines. As an aside, the team did find a possible protective effect with BCG vaccination, but this will need further studies. The study was published online in Pediatrics.
"This was a nice study, a very careful study," Joseph A. Murray of the Mayo Clinic, who was not involved in the research, said to Reuters Health. "It goes a long way toward showing that vaccinations do not explain the celiac epidemic in Sweden."
In conclusion, the researchers found no links between the early vaccination program in infants and any increased risk of celiac disease, and changes in the vaccination program did not explain the temporary rise in cases of gluten sensitivity, which may actually come down to the past Swedish tendency to use wheat-based follow-on formulas in young children. So, it's back to the drawing board for the celiac disease researchers, and as Anna Myléus, Umeå University, said to Reuters Health, understanding what actually did cause the spike could help in celiac disease prevention.