Children's doctors warn of return of 19th century disease if current trends continue

Widely available and low-cost vitamin D supplements, fortification of foods, greater knowledge amongst healthcare professionals and better public awareness are amongst the steps needed to tackle the growing incidence of vitamin D deficiency amongst the UK population, according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

Children's doctors are warning that vitamin D deficiency - thought to affect at least half the UK's white population, up to 90% of the multi-ethnic population[1] and a quarter of children - is resulting in higher incidences of diabetes, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis and rickets; a bone disease uncommon in the UK since the 19th century. Recent figures suggest a 4-fold increase in incidents of rickets over the last 15 years.[2] Vitamin D deficiency is a particular problem amongst children and young people and pregnant women.

Professor Mitch Blair, Officer for Health Promotion at the RCPCH, said:

"We know vitamin D deficiency is a growing problem - and localised research reveals startling high levels of vitamin deficiency amongst certain groups including children.

"People can only get a fraction (10%) of their recommended daily amount of vitamin D through food and very little from sunlight. So getting out in the sun more or eating more oily fish isn't going to solve the problem. Lack of vitamin D is related to a plethora of serious illnesses in children and adults that could be prevented through relatively simple steps such as taking supplements."

The RCPCH is today launching a campaign that calls for:
  • Vitamin D supplements to be readily available at low-cost and high quality
  • Investigation into the pros and cons of further fortification of food with vitamin D
  • Professional guidance for healthcare professionals: including standardised guidance on how to diagnose and treat diseases linked to vitamin D deficiency
  • A public awareness campaign: clear information for parents and families on the warning signs of vitamin D deficiency and how to prevent it
  • Further research into the link between vitamin D deficiency and bone disease: there is currently a dearth of research in this area making high profile child protection cases difficult to resolve
  • Better surveillance: to monitor the prevalence and incidence of vitamin D deficiency across the population
Earlier this year, the Chief Medical Officer recommended that all pregnant and breastfeeding women, children aged 6 month - 5 years old and people aged 65 and over should take vitamin D supplements.

Professor Blair continued:

"The Government's 'Healthy Start' programme provides vitamins free to low income families and 'at risk' groups. But these vitamins appear to be in short supply and uptake is low. Ensuring people are aware that they're available is crucial - and there is some evidence to suggest we need to make these supplements more readily available for the wider population, which is already happening in some countries.

"And equally as important is making sure that all healthcare professionals can spot the signs of vitamin D deficiency in children; aches and pains, poor growth, muscle weakness and seizures - and make sure they get appropriately treated."

The first stage of the campaign will see the RCPCH produce a series of leaflets for paediatricians and other healthcare professionals highlighting the signs of vitamin D deficiency in patients set to be published in spring 2013.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is currently looking into proposals for further vitamin D fortification of food and drink, as happens in countries including the United States, Canada and Finland.