A concerning trend has emerged as the number of people being treated for malnutrition rises. This has led to the reappearance of Victorian-era ailments such as scurvy and rickets with The Times has reported a surge in cases.
According to the report, nearly 11,000 individuals in England were hospitalised with malnutrition last year, highlighting the devastating impact of the cost of living crisis on people’s ability to adequately feed themselves and their families.
This dire situation has been further compounded by the Government’s decision to end the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift, resulting in over 100,000 additional people being pushed into what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said was “absolute poverty”.
Newly obtained provisional data, under freedom of information laws, by The Times Health Commission has revealed a more than twofold increase in cases of malnutrition over the past decade, with a fourfold increase since 2007/8.
From 2022 to April 2023, a staggering 10,896 NHS patients, including 312 children, were admitted to hospitals in England due to malnutrition. The figures also indicate that 171 individuals were treated for scurvy, a disease caused by severe vitamin C deficiency, and 482 patients were admitted with rickets, a condition resulting from prolonged vitamin D deficiency, with 405 of them being children.
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Scurvy and rickets are ailments associated with the hardships faced by sailors in the 18th century due to a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables during long voyages.
Dr Clare Gerada said: “If this is indicative of the health of our most vulnerable, then it is shocking. The poorest people in this country are poorer than any other counterparts in Europe . . . and it’s poor diet. The most common reason a child under five has a general anaesthetic now is for dental care, so that’s a sign of malnutrition. This isn’t about the health system, it’s about the social determinants of ill health, indicative of the last 15 years of austerity.”
The rise in cases of scurvy suggests individuals may be unable to afford fresh fruits and vegetables, a concerning reflection of the Department for Work and Pensions data, which shows that around one in six people in the UK are living in relative poverty.
Dr Gerada also highlighted the obesity epidemic as another indicator of malnutrition, as many obese children are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D due to their inadequate calorie intake.
She said: “People are doing without. Parents are struggling to do the basics for their children. We’re going back to a situation where unless we look after our poor, we’re going to end up with more of these diseases of the Victorian era.
“We won’t end up like the Victorians because it’ll all be sorted by a tablet but it’s a sad environment that we have to sort out poverty by giving out vitamin supplements.”
At Deputy Prime Minister’s questions Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner clashed about poverty in Britain. She said: “The truth is rising bills, soaring mortgages and plummeting real wages are pushing more and more families to the brink. Those already struggling are being hit hardest by the Tory mortgage bombshell and rising food costs.”
Ms Rayner asked how many primary school children have been “pushed into poverty” since the Government took power, with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden replying: “It is this party, not the party opposite, which extended free school meals to all five, six and seven-year-olds, something the party opposite failed to do, and it sits alongside many measures we’re taking to help people with the cost of living.”
Ms Rayner pointed to research suggesting 400,000 more primary school age children are growing up in poverty, with Mr Dowden saying: “I will take absolutely no lectures whatsoever from the party opposite about how we help children in the most need.”
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Official NHS advice on scurvy
Things that increase risk of scurvy:
have no fresh fruits or vegetables in your diet for a while
eat very little food at all – possible reasons include treatments that make you feel very sick all the time (such as chemotherapy) or an eating disorder such as anorexia
smoke, as smoking reduces how much vitamin C your body gets from food
have a long-term dependency on drugs or alcohol that affects your diet
have a poor diet while pregnant or breastfeeding, because the body needs more vitamin C at these times
See a GP if you’re at risk of scurvy and you:
feel very tired and weak all the time
feel irritable and sad all the time
have severe joint or leg pain
have swollen, bleeding gums (sometimes teeth can fall out)
develop red or blue spots on the skin, usually on your shins
have skin that bruises easily
Official NHS advice on rickets
A lack of vitamin D or calcium is the most common cause of rickets. Vitamin D largely comes from exposing the skin to sunlight, but it’s also found in some foods, such as oily fish and eggs. Vitamin D is essential for the formation of strong and healthy bones in children.
The signs and symptoms of rickets can include:
pain – the bones affected by rickets can be sore and painful, so the child may be reluctant to walk or may tire easily; the child’s walk may look different (waddling)
skeletal deformities – thickening of the ankles, wrists and knees, bowed legs, soft skull bones and, rarely, bending of the spine
dental problems – including weak tooth enamel, delay in teeth coming through and increased risk of cavities
poor growth and development – if the skeleton doesn’t grow and develop properly, the child will be shorter than average
fragile bones – in severe cases the bones become weaker and more prone to fractures
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