Giving diseases a national identity, an inanely xenophobic practice at best, is now regarded as politically incorrect. Referring to rubella as ‘German measles’ might still be considered merely naïve, but any mention of ‘mongolism’ (once a widely used synonym for Down’s Syndrome) is likely to be met with severe censure. The term ‘French letters’ has important medical connotations but is not a disease.

This week I read that rickets, the illness referred to in some European countries as ‘the English disease’ due to its prevalence among the poor on this island in the 19th century – is making a comeback in England. Rickets, a disease which softens the bones of children causing fractures and skeletal deformity most noticeably bowing of the legs, is caused by a deficiency in Vitamin D. You can get it in foods like fish and egg yolks but this vitamin is unique in that it can be made by the body on one condition – that you get enough sunlight. Dark skinned people, who need more exposure to sunlight for this purpose may certainly be more prone to getting rickets but the authors of a paper on the increase in the incidence or rickets,published in the British Medical Journal point to another cause.

The men in white coats in Newcastle (a city which has 20 new cases of rickets a year), Profs Cheetham and Pearce suggest other possible causes. One is kids choosing to stay indoors and play computer games over getting some exposure to sunlight outside. Another is that parents, fearful of the harmful effects of the sun, overuse sun-blocking creams.

It’s not only our children that suffer from lack of Vitamin D. More than 50% (sic) of British adults lack Vitamin D in the sun-free seasons of winter and spring. My colleague in the New Medicine Group, Dr Damien Downing has been ranting about this for many years at our weekly clinical meetings and elsewhere. As he has relentlessly pointed out, Vit D deficiency is also responsible for a broad spectrum of illnesses including various cancers.

The fact that the return of rickets and Vit D deficiency to our shores isn’t headline news is a national disgrace. It is emetic that the media continues to host the  vengeful, vindictive, vituperative, vicious and disingenuous campaign against homeopathy while hardly mentioning the increase of an easily treatable vitamin deficiency affecting half the British public! (Sorry but I had to get that alliteration in somewhere)  Perhaps the return of rickets is simply not ‘sexy’ enough a topic to sell newspapers and television programmes?

Unlike most of the other bad news we read about every day, this is something we can easily do something about

  1. Make hay when the sun shines. Without overdoing it, make sure your skin gets a little exposure to the sun. This is even more important if you have a dark skin.
  2. Take a high quality Vitamin D supplement in the winter and spring and check with a doctor that you are taking the right dose.