Middle class children in the south of England are suffering from the '17th century disease' rickets as parents cover them in sunscreen and limit time outside in the sunshine, a leading doctor has warned.
by Rebecca Smith By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor, 13 Nov 2010
The disease, caused by low levels of vitamin D generated in the body from sunshine and certain foods, had died out around 80 years ago but is now coming back.
Cases of rickets in children have occurred in northern England and Scotland where there are fewer months of the year with sufficient sunshine to obtain enough vitamin D but now doctors are seeing it on the South coast as well.
It is thought extensive use of sunscreen, children playing more time on computer games and TV rather than playing outside and a poor diet are to blame.
Professor Nicholas Clarke, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Southampton General Hospital and professor of paediatric orthopaedic surgery at the University of Southampton, said: "The return of rickets in northern parts of the UK came as a surprise despite the colder climate and lower levels of sunshine in the north, but what has developed in Southampton is quite astonishing."
Children from all backgrounds are being affected now and the disease is not limited to the poor as it was in Victorian times.
He added: “In my 22 years at Southampton General Hospital, this is a completely new occurrence in the south that has evolved over the last 12 to 24 months and we are seeing cases across the board, from areas of deprivation up to the middle classes, so there is a real need to get national attention focused on the dangers this presents.”
Professor Clarke says he and colleague Dr Justin Davies, a consultant paediatric endocrinologist, have checked over 200 children for bone problems and more than 20 per cent of them have significant deficiencies.
“A lot of the children we’ve seen have got low vitamin D and require treatment,” he said.
“This is almost certainly a combination of the modern lifestyle, which involves a lack of exposure to sunlight, but also covering up in sunshine, and we’re seeing cases that are very reminiscent of 17th century England.”
He added: “We are facing the daunting prospect of an area like Southampton, where it is high income, middle class and leafy in its surroundings, seeing increasing numbers of children with rickets, which would have been inconceivable only a year or so ago.”
Professor Clarke says vitamin D supplements should be more widely adopted to halt the rise in cases.
Vitamin D is found in oily fish and eggs and margarine, cereals and milk can be fortified with it.
The vitamin is vital for the absorption of calcium needed for strong bones and teeth.