Deadly Victorian-era diseases surge in the UK

Health experts have expressed “alarm” at a resurgence in patients being treated for diseases associated with the Victorian era, such as rickets and malnutrition.

Figures released today show since 2019 there has been a surge in conditions linked to pre-industrial poverty.

Rickets, which cause soft and deformed bones in childhood, is usually caused by prolonged lack of vitamin D and calcium.Malnutrition, which can be deadly, is caused when the body doesn’t get enough nutrients.

It can lead to tiredness, weakness and illness, and stunted growth.They have been linked by some experts to lifestyle factors, including poor diet and lack of sunlight due to increased time spent indoors.

Some specialists say this has been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis.

Experts at BAPEN, a malnutrition awareness group, say cases of malnutrition are rising among older people. Its research shows as many as 45 percent of adults are showing signs of the condition. They say poor eating habits caused by repeated hospital visits or depression and loneliness increase the risk.

Dr Trevor Smith, past president of BAPEN, said: “Malnutrition can affect any age group but many are elderly people over 65 who are not getting enough to eat or drink.

“We have seen a recent increase in this partly due to people living longer with lots of long-term diseases. And there is the added effect of deconditioning associated with lockdowns which meant many people lost muscle mass, becoming frailer with reduced appetite. Together with the cost of living crisis we would expect to see these numbers continue to rise.”

Kamila Hawthorne, chairwoman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “It is unacceptable that a developed nation like the UK should see such an increase in the number of preventable conditions linked to poverty and poor nutrition – especially a disease like rickets which should have been confined to the history books.

“The link between overall physical health and lifestyle – including nutrition – is well established and of particular importance in childhood.

“As we’ve seen, fresh, healthier foods spike in price and become much less affordable for some of our most vulnerable patients, and this has had an inevitable impact on their physical health. At the same time, ‘fast foods’ are cheap, filling and easy to access, but are low in nutritious content.

“It is important that the government seriously considers how to promote cheap nutritious alternatives to high-calorie fast foods.”

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London, said: “An increase in rickets and malnutrition in modern Britain is alarming but, regrettably, not surprising. They are diseases of poverty.”

Prof Marmot, a leading public health expert added: “To understand what has happened to poverty in Britain it is more helpful to look at the evidence than listen to political statements.

“The Joseph Rowntree Foundation measures destitution which is defined as doing without two or more of six basics: housing, heat, light, food, clothing, and toiletries.

“The latest figures, for 2022, show one million children in the UK living in a state of destitution. That is a 2.9-fold increase in just five years.

“People simply cannot afford to eat a healthy diet. The result is both a lack of essential nutrients and an increase in childhood obesity, when the diet is cheap, high fat, high sugar food.

“We showed in a recent report that over the decade from 2010, there were one million excess deaths linked to deprivation. Our latest report showed significant increases in health inequalities in 17 local areas, and life expectancy for the poorest people declining.”

The new figures gathered by digital health platform NowPatient following Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to NHS trusts across the country, show that between 2019 and 2023 there has been a 50 percent rise in people being treated for malnutrition among the 39 trusts that responded to an FoI – from 4,501 to 6771 cases.

Over the same period there was also a 62 percent increase in the number of people treated for rickets – from 7,187 – 11,642 cases.

Among the 44 trusts there has also been a 25 percent increase in patients needing treatment for Gout – a painful inflammatory condition often linked to diet – from 73,899 to 92,379.

Navin Khosla, pharmacist and head of patient safety at NowPatient, said: “How many people cook fresh food every day and are relying on cheap non-nutritious foods? Fast food diets could be linked to rising cases of malnutrition.

“Vitamin D is also linked to lack of sunlight and we certainly spend less time than we did outdoors. We need a long-term, in-depth study across the population and socioeconomic groups to properly understand what is going on.“

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