A historical disease caused by a lack of vitamin C and associated with old-world sailors, it appears that scurvy is reappearing in Australia due to poor modern dietary habits.
A spate of patients suffering from wounds that refused to heal led a Sydney hospital researcher to the surprising discovery of scurvy in contemporary Australians. Jenny Gunton, who heads the Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Endocrinology research at the Westmead Institute, said several of her patients with long-running unhealed wounds were cured by a simple course of vitamin C.
“When I asked about their diets, one person was eating little or no fresh fruit and vegetables. But the rest ate fair amounts of vegetables; they were simply over-cooking them, which destroys the vitamin C,” she said.
The irony, she said, is that it is possible for patients to have scurvy, even when they are overweight or obese.
“It highlights a danger that you can consume plenty of calories, yet not receive enough nutrients,” Prof. Gunton said.
In a research paper just published in the International Journal of Diabetic Medicine, she concluded that some diabetes patients should be tested for vitamin C deficiency.
“While diabetes is not traditionally a risk factor for vitamin C deficiency, the research suggests that clinicians should be alert to the potential problem,” said Prof. Gunton, “particularly if their patients present with unhealed ulcers, easy bruising or gum bleeding without obvious cause.”
Her paper reported there was no predominant social pattern to the incidence of scurvy and that patients with poor diets appeared to be from a range of socio-economic backgrounds.
“This result suggests that despite the large amount of dietary advice readily available to the community, there are still plenty of people from all walks of life who are not getting the message,” Professor Gunton said.
Carl Gibson, chief executive of Complementary Medicines Australia, which represents the country’s natural nutrition industry, said that Australians needed to improve their poor diets.
“Too many Australians today are relying on a diet of tea, toast and takeaways. Getting a healthy diet filled with all the essential vitamins and minerals is at the cornerstone of good health; however, in reality no one eats perfectly all the time,” he said.
“Nutritional supplements act to fill in the gaps in a diet that is lacking in sufficient vitamins and minerals.”
The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics report on Australia’s eating habits highlighted how the typical Australian is starving of quality nutrients, despite eating sufficient food.
Based on self-reporting, it found that just 6.8% of the population met the recommended usual intake of vegetables, and just over half met the recommendations for serves of fruit.
A lack of vitamin C in the body results in the defective formation of collagen and connective tissues, which can cause bruising, bleeding gums, petechiae (blood spots in the skin), joint pain and impaired wound healing.
Common foods high in vitamin C include rose hips, oranges, strawberries, capsicums, broccoli, kiwi fruit and grapefruit.