Meet 17-year-old Annika Dhariwal who is raising awareness about Celiac disease that affects 6-8 million Indians
Annika Dhariwal started the social project Gluten Free Jio to raise awareness and provide access to information on Celiac disease and gluten-free diets in India.
When Annika Dhariwal was nine-years-old, she fell ill every couple of months and took a course of prescribed antibiotics every time.
During a summer vacation to the US, Annika was diagnosed with Celiac disease. The 17-year-old is among six to eight million people in India affected by this auto-immune disorder that is triggered when the body is exposed to gluten.
Considered highly unreported in India, experts view this as an emerging health epidemic and believe the only way to manage the condition is to ensure a strict gluten-free diet, according to experts at All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
However, a lack of gluten-free items in grocery stores and restaurants was a major problem for Annika who had to resort to sourcing gluten-free food products from the US. The first challenge, she says, is the diagnosis itself.
“It is not that the doctors in India are incompetent, but it just does not occur to them that one may have Celiac disease,” she tells HerStory.
Noting a lack of awareness surrounding Celiac disease, Annika started, a social project that aims to raise awareness and provide access to information on Celiac disease and gluten-free diets in India, in 2018.
Addressing the gap and raising awareness
A student of Cheltenham Ladies College, Annika saw the gap in resources available in the UK and India. “Any random pub or restaurant in the UK would have gluten-free marked food options if not an entirely separate menu, which is hardly there in India,” she says, adding that more concept restaurants are now slowly catering to this need.
She also created a resource website last year to share tips and tricks for navigating all aspects of life as a person suffering from Celiac disease. Recently, she launched an app by the same name that allows users to identify gluten-free restaurants and grocery stores that stock gluten-free food items.
In its beta testing stage, the discovery app caters to users in the Chandigarh tri-city area and Punjab, and Annika hopes to make the app available to a pan-India audience by next month.
It is currently a one-woman initiative with support from her father, Manipal Dhariwal who is a techie and an entrepreneur. Moving ahead, she hopes to gain good traction and develop the platform into a marketplace where gluten-free brands can directly list for online sale.
Once monetised, she plans on donating most of the profits to organisations such as the Celiac Disease Foundation, which conducts research on cure and vaccine for Celiac disease, besides keeping a certain amount to invest back in Gluten Free Jio.
Annika has conducted interactive and educational sessions in government schools in Chandigarh and Punjab and enabled over 1000 Tissue Transglutaminase IgA antibody tests for Celiac disease screening.
“I started various conversations with local leaders and communities in partnership with government schools and community organisations across the tricity,” she adds.
Annika says the misconception that people prefer a gluten-free diet to follow a fad or fashion trends is a challenge. “Many do not know that Celiac is an actual disease and condition and that is why it is important to spread awareness.”
Based on her personal experience, Annika has also penned a children’s book chronicling the protagonist, an eight-year-old’s journey of dealing with and managing Celiac disease with creative illustrations.
She has also uploaded educational videos in Hindi, Punjabi, and English on YouTube when she had to stop in-person sessions at schools during the pandemic.
Noting that the pandemic-induced lockdown became a challenge for people to access regular rations, she distributed gluten-free food products to many families who had lost their livelihoods.
Now juggling her International Baccalaureate in the UK and Gluten Free Jio, she continues to engage with an online community of over 22,000 on Facebook. The goal, she says, is to raise awareness among the public, improve the diagnosis rate, and create a community of support for Celiac disease patients.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan