The increasing number of Australians jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon is undermining safety for people with coeliac disease, Coeliac Australia says.
About one in 70 Australians - or 1.4 per cent of the population - are believed to have coeliac disease. But just over 12 per cent of Australians avoid gluten, according to a CSIRO study.
As a result, people unnecessarily avoiding gluten could become deficient in some nutrients, and efforts to help people with coeliac disease were undermined.
In coeliac disease, gluten causes inflammation and damage to the lining of the small bowel. It causes diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and bloating, and increases the risk of bowel cancer.
"It ... creates the perception that those on a gluten free diet are simply "lifestylers"," Coeliac Australia's public health officer, Penny Dellsperger, said in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry on allergies. "Those with coeliac disease are tarred with this same brush and their medical need for a gluten free diet is often dismissed and not taken seriously."
Ms Dellsperger called for a bigger emphasis on diagnosis, given the vast majority of people with coeliac disease remained undiagnosed - while 350,000 Australian were believed to have coeliac disease, 280,000 didn't know it.
Instead of suggesting people try a gluten-free diet, doctors should test people for coeliac disease. If not, they should be tested through supervised exclusion and challenge for specific foods, to test whether it was gluten causing their symptoms of the starch element of wheat, or some other food.
Self-diagnosis and advice from alternative health practitioners was a concern, Ms Dellsperger said.
The huge demand for gluten-free food had a positive side - with plenty of foods available for people with coeliac disease. But it also meant they were taken less seriously - with restaurants also catering for people who asked for gluten-free food "until the garlic bread looked really good".
Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia told the inquiry that more than four million Australians have allergies.
One getting recent attention is tick-induced allergy, with an expert group highlighting the rapid spread of a meat allergy since it was first described 12 years ago by Sheryl van Nunen, a specialist at at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.
Australia now had the highest rate of mammalian meat allergy and tick anaphylaxis in the world, Prof van Nunen, and other members of the Tick-induced Allergies Research and Awareness committee told the inquiry in a submission.
Two ticks were known to cause the allergy, with 60 per cent of Australians living in tick regions - the 20 to 30 kilometre strip along most of Australia's eastern seaboard.
Some people who developed the meat allergy could tolerate meat again after three or four years, but they were left at risk of an allergic reaction to some medicines and medical devices.
A quarter or more of Australians living in tick regions were also believed to have sensitisation to the meat allergy without even being aware. They, too, were at risk of allergic reactions to medicines that used animal products, the group said.
It listed a colon cancer drug made in a mouses, vaccines containing gelatine, such as Zostavax and MMR II, other vaccines containing substances derived from cows, medicines in gelatine capsules, snake antivenoms made in mammals, heparin derived from pigs and heart valve prostheses made from pigs.
The prevalence of the sensitisation to the antibody was not known, but it could be up to 35 per cent of people in tick-prone areas.
The group pointed to the case of a woman with the tick-induced meat allergy who fractured her ankle, sparking many hours of investigation into what anaesthetics and anticoagulants and surgical materials were safe to use.
Even advice on safe travel vaccines could take hours of research.
"Advice regarding the advisability of simple vaccinations for travel, for example, require six hours of research, several emails across the globe and requests for additional information from overseas manufacturers and inquiries to track down the manufacturer via the Australian distributors, to then email the patient to state "you may have the Japanese encephalitis vaccine brand JESPECT as this is made in the African green monkey (Chlorocebus spp.) which is an Old World monkey (after checking the taxonomy of the monkey) and only this brand is currently suitable for you"," the submission said.
"These clinical problems are a weekly experience for any consultant physician expert in tick-induced allergies."
Recent work also suggested a link between people with the tick sensitisation and risk of heart attack and stroke in some people. If that was confirmed, "this would mean that tick bites are a huge public health problem on this basis alone".