There’s no wheat in vaccines—but good luck trying to convince “gluten-sensitive” relatives to get their flu shots. A recent survey of 1,500 people with gluten-free diets found that more than 40 percent of those with self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity bought into anti-vaccine, anti-GMO pseudoscience, maintaining that vaccines weren’t safe despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
“We were concerned to find that a substantial minority reported the belief that vaccines may not be safe in people with celiac disease,” Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl, a gastroenterologist at Columbia University and coauthor on the study presented at Digestive Disease Week in Chicago, told Fatherly. “Vaccines do not contain gluten. If there is any worry in this area that’s warranted, it should be about the consequences of infection, as opposed to the safety of vaccination.”
Lebwohl added that, since some studies suggest patients with celiac are at increased risk of contracting the flu, the case for routine vaccination is even stronger in this population.
For the study, Lebwohl and colleagues surveyed about 1,500 people who had either been diagnosed with celiac disease—a serious condition in which the gluten protein found in wheat triggers an autoimmune response—or had reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), a poorly understood condition that is often self-diagnosed. Neither group touches gluten.
Lebwohl and his team found that 26 percent of celiac patients and 41 percent of those with NCGS disagreed with the statement: “vaccines are safe for people with celiac disease”. Lebwohl says he is not sure why there is such a disparity between the views of NCGS and celiac patients, but he has one theory. “Celiac disease is a well defined condition, whereas non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition that is less well understood,” he says. NCGS patients “may have been treated dismissively by providers in conventional medicine, and so may have more exposure to alternative practitioners and those who promote non-evidence-based medicine.”
Indeed, the results suggest that NCGS patients are more likely than both celiac patients and the general population to buy into pseudoscience. Many NCGS respondents said that gluten-free diets can improve energy and concentration (40 percent), genetically-modified foods are dangerous (47 percent), and that one should try to eat only organic food (29 percent)—positions that all have virtually no support in evidence-based medicine. This may be because food allergies and NCGS tend to “go along with the belief that ‘natural’, an impossibly vague term, is equivalent to healthy and safe, and that industry is not trustworthy,” Lebwohl says.
Regardless, Lebwohl says it is crucial that healthcare providers listen to patients who have sworn off gluten, so that they can better understand their concerns and convince them to vaccinate. “Skepticism regarding vaccines can be dangerous,” Lebwohl says. “In addition to the individual being at risk of infection due to being unvaccinated, if the belief spreads and there is a critical mass of unvaccinated individuals, this could lead to influenza and other outbreaks.”