NOV 29, 2016 11:10 AM PST

Diagnosed: Scurvy Makes a Comeback in Australia

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
Scurvy, a disease that historically afflicted sailors, appears to be making a comeback in Australia.
 
While modern cases of scurvy are extremely rare, doctors at the Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Australia reported about a dozen cases of scurvy among patients with diabetes.
 

“The only time [scurvy] should be common in this day and age is for people who are in hospital for a long time with repeated surgeries, or cancer patients or burns patients, but not in the general population,” said Tim McMaster, a dietician and spokesman for the Dieticians Association of Australia. The findings reflect a worsening dietary shift among this population.
 
Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C – a molecule that can’t be produced by the body, and thus, must be obtained through eating fresh fruits and vegetables. As such, the disease was common among seafarers, as these people often went for months without fresh foods that contained vitamin C.
 
A deficiency in vitamin C causes muscle weakness and fatigue in the beginning. Prolonged absence of this molecule eventually causes anemia, edema, and bleeding/ulcers at the gums and skin.
 
So how did this 18th-century disease make such a surprise comeback? It boils down to diet and nutrition. And according to health officials, people are not eating the right things.
 
"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," said Jenny Gunton, who heads the Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Endocrinology research at the Westmead Institute. "It highlights a danger that you can consume plenty of calories, yet not receive enough nutrients."
 
Of note, Gunton pointed out that the link between scurvy in diabetic patients may be artificial, and warns that the prevalence of scurvy may, in fact, be more widespread. "There's no particular link to diabetes ... except that if you have a poor quality diet you're more likely to get diabetes," said Gunton. "But of course, a lot of people with diabetes eat perfectly reasonable diets."
 
Gunton reiterated that scurvy seemed to affect no one group in particular – that poor diet and nutrition can affect people from a range of 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," said Gunton.
 

As a reminder, vitamin C-rich foods that ward off scurvy include a variety of fruits (oranges, strawberries, kiwis, etc.) and a host of vegetables (broccoli, bell peppers, etc.). 

Additional sources: BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph
About the Author
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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