Scurvy, a disease historically associated with old-world sailors on long voyages, is making a surprise comeback in Australia with health officials Tuesday revealing a spate of cases.
Caused by vitamin C deficiency, it used to be a common, and often fatal, curse among seafarers who went months without fresh fruit and vegetables.
Now considered rare, it is reappearing due to poor dietary habits, said Jenny Gunton, who heads the Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Endocrinology research at the Westmead Institute in Sydney.
She discovered the disease after several of her patients with wounds failed to heal.
“When I asked about their diet, 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.
“It highlights a danger that you can consume plenty of calories, yet not receive enough nutrients.”
The scurvy diagnosis for 12 patients was made based on blood tests and symptoms, with all cured by a simple course of vitamin C.
A lack of vitamin C can lead to defective formation of collagen and connective tissues, which can cause bruising, bleeding gums, blood spots in the skin, joint pain and impaired wound healing.
Common foods that keep scurvy at bay include oranges, strawberries, broccoli, kiwi fruit, bell peppers and grapefruit, but overcooking can destroy key nutrients.
Gunton, who published a research paper on the resurgence of scurvy in the international journal Diabetic Medicine, said patients could be overweight or obese and still have the condition.
Her paper reported there was no predominant social pattern to the incidence of the disease 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 messages,” Gunton said.
“Human bodies cannot synthesise vitamin C, so we must eat foods containing it.”
Health authorities tend not to test for scurvy these days and Gunton`s study advised clinicians to be alert to the potential problem especially in diabetes patients.
“Particularly if their patients present with unhealed ulcers, easy bruising or gum bleeding without obvious cause,” she said.
Previous reports suggest the problem is not limited to Australia but also on the rise in other developed countries such as Britain.