Doctors urge screening for autoimmune disorders for patients with celiac disease


Boston dietitian Katarina Mollo, MEd, RDN, LDN, has virtually no memory of life without celiac disease (CD). Diagnosed at age 4, Dr. Mollo has been on a gluten-free diet for 41 years, which she says has kept her healthy and may also be why she hasn’t developed other autoimmune diseases. It’s also played a part in her thinking about screening patients with CD.

“I think [physicians] should definitely be screening people with celiac disease for autoimmune disorders, especially if they see things like anemia or if a child has dropped on the growth chart and has nutrient deficiencies,” said Dr. Mollo, whose daughter also has the disease. “I would recommend that they see someone who specializes in celiac disease so they can get monitored and have regular follow-up checks for nutrient deficiencies and other autoimmune disorders.”

Dr. Mollo’s views on screening are echoed by many CD specialists and physicians, who cite multiple studies that have found that people with the disease face higher risks for diabetes, thyroid conditions, arthritis, and other autoimmune disorders.

Gastroenterologist Alessio Fasano, MD, with Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, said there has been a “shift in the paradigm in thinking” about cross-screening for CD and autoimmune disorders. As result, he believes the answer to the question of whether to routinely do so is a no-brainer.

“The bottom line is, if you have CD, it [should be] routine that during your annual follow-ups you check for the possibility of the onset of other autoimmune disease. And people with other autoimmune diseases, like type 1 diabetes, should also be screened for CD because of the comorbidity,” said Dr. Fasano, professor of pediatrics and gastroenterology at Harvard Medical School and professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, both in Boston. “This is what we call good clinical practice.”

Screening, despite lack of consensus guidelines

Other CD specialists differ on the need for universal cross-screening but agree that, at least in some cases, people with one autoimmune disorder should be tested for others.

Jolanda Denham, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist affiliated with Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, routinely recommends that her patients with CD be screened for certain autoimmune disorders – such as type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroid and liver diseases – even though medical organizations have not developed clear consensus or standard guidelines on cross-screening.

“There currently is no evidence to support the screening of celiac patients for all autoimmune and rheumatologic disorders,” she said. “It is true that celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, and as such, there is a definite increased risk of these disorders in patients with celiac disease and vice versa.”

Echoing Dr. Denham, New York–based gastroenterologist Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, president of the Society for the Study of Celiac Disease, urges physicians to look beyond consensus guidelines and to err on the side of caution and make the best decisions for their patients on a case-by-case basis.

“Given the increased risk of certain autoimmune conditions in people with celiac disease, it behooves physicians to have a low threshold to evaluate for these conditions if any suggestive symptoms are present,” said Dr. Lebwohl, director of clinical research at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, New York.

“Whether to screen for these conditions among people who are entirely without symptoms is less certain, and there is no consensus on that. But it is reasonable and common to include some basic tests with annual blood work, such as thyroid function and a liver profile, since both autoimmune thyroid disease and autoimmune liver disease can be silent early on and the patient would potentially benefit from identification and treatment of these conditions,” he said.

The American Diabetes Association and the International Society of Pediatric and Adolescent Diabetes do recommend that people with diabetes be screened for CD years after diagnosis, noted Robert Rapaport, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist, with Kravis Children’s Hospital, New York. But in a study published in 2021, he and colleagues found that this wasn’t occurring, which prompted them to recommend yearly screening.

“There is a consensus that in children with type 1 diabetes, we screen them for other autoimmune disorders, specifically for thyroid disease and celiac disease,” said Dr. Rapaport, who is also Emma Elizabeth Sullivan Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. “But there is no consensus going the other way – for patients with celiac disease, what other autoimmune conditions they should be screened for.”

This hasn’t kept some doctors from extending cross-screening efforts to their patients.

“At our center, we screen ... for thyroid disease and autoimmune liver disease as part of routine healthcare maintenance for our celiac disease patients. We discuss symptoms of diabetes and send screening with [hemoglobin] A1c for anyone who has symptoms,” said Lui Edwin, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Children’s Hospital Colorado, Aurora, and director of the Colorado Center for Celiac Disease, who delivered a lecture on CD-autoimmune screening at the International Celiac Disease Symposium in October.

“It is definitely worth screening for celiac disease in [those with] other autoimmune disorders,” Dr. Edwin added.

“The symptoms can be very heterogeneous. Diagnosing and treating celiac disease can make a huge impact with respect to symptoms, quality of life, and preventing disease-related complications,” he said.


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