Vitamin D deficiency is ‘disturbingly common’ in the UK and can cause a number of serious health problems, in particular rickets in children.
A traditional UK diet often lacks vitamin D and this could be a big reason for the increasing problem, as well as changes in lifestyle, such as children staying indoors playing computer games.
Rickets, where children develop painful and deformed bow-legs and don’t grow properly is a condition linked with poverty, starvation, Victorian times or those in the developing world – not with 21st Century Britain. But it is a very real concern, with several studies showing that numbers are increasing. More than 20 new cases are discovered every year in Newcastle alone.
Dr Tim Cheetham, Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Endocrinology at Newcastle University, said “ I am dismayed by the increasing numbers of children we are treating with this entirely preventable condition. Fifty years ago, many children would have been given regular doses of cod liver oil, but this practice has all but died out.”
Half of all adults in the UK have Vitamin D deficiency in the winter and spring, and one in six have severe deficiency. This is worse in northern regions and could be part of the reason for the health gap between the north and south.
And the condition has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, several cancers, and autoimmune conditions as well as osteomalacia, which is the painful manifestation of soft bones in adults.
Simon Pearce, Professor of Endocrinology, said: “Kids tend to stay indoors more these days and play on their computers instead of enjoying the fresh air. This means their Vitamin D levels are worse than in previous years.”
“A change in public health policy is required. Health professionals have been slow to deal with this problem, even though we have known about it for a while.”
“Some measures have been taken but the number of patients still presenting with symptoms of vitamin D deficiency shows we have a long way to go.”
Our main source of vitamin D is sunlight, through skin exposure. But it is also present in a small number of foods: oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and – granny’s favourite: cod liver oil.
There are several high risk groups who are most in danger from suffering from deficiency including; people with skin pigmentation, those who use sunscreen or concealing clothing, being elderly or institutionalised, people who are obese, and those suffering from renal and liver disease.
Prof Pearce added: “We believe that a more robust approach to statutory food supplementation with vitamin D, for example in milk, is needed in the UK, as this measure has already been introduced successfully in many other countries in similar parts of the world.”