Hamiltonians are developing scurvy, study shows — particularly the most vulnerable

A new study from McMaster University shows that scurvy, a disease brought on by severe vitamin C deficiency, is alive and well in Hamilton.

A new McMaster study shows there were at least 13 cases of scurvy in the last 9 years

Hamilton hospitals have seen 13 cases of scurvy, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C, in the last nine years. (Bryan Eneas/CBC News)

A new study from McMaster University shows that scurvy, a disease brought on by severe vitamin C deficiency, is alive and well in Hamilton.

The study looked at patient data from Hamilton's two hospitals over nine years and found 52 cases of low vitamin C levels, including 13 that could be diagnosed with the life-threatening disease. Another 39 tested positive for scurvy but didn't have symptoms, which includes bruising, weakness, anemia and gum disease. 

The conditions were most common in people experiencing causes of malnutrition that included persistent vomiting, mental illness and social isolation, as well as people who purposefully restricted their diets or depended on others for food. Once doctors gave the patients vitamin C, they recovered rapidly.

Lead author Dr. Kayla Dadgar, an internal medicine resident in Ottawa who did the study with McMaster physician John Neary, said she became interested when Neary diagnosed a patient with scurvy.

Kayla Dadgar was the first author of the study when she was a medical student at McMaster University. (McMaster University)

"Like most people, I didn't realize that people in a modern major city might develop scurvy," said Dadgar, who did the work as a McMaster student.

There were other causes for the malnutrition, such as gastric bypass surgery and alcohol disorders, she said. Overall, though, the results show society needs to do a better job reaching out to vulnerable citizens.

"It's so preventable," she said. "It really requires very little vitamin C to prevent scurvy. There's no reason, in a prosperous North American city, that anyone should be getting that little vitamin C."

The Journal of General Internal Medicine published the study. Neary, who's an associate professor, was the senior author. 

The amount of Vitamin C you need to keep scurvy away is probably a lot less than you think. Dr. Arthur P. Grollman, a Professor of Pharmacological Sciences, tells us about how much Vitamin C our bodies actually need. 1:55

"Scurvy is seen as a disease irrelevant to the modern world, but it still exists," Neary said in a media release, "and clinicians caring for at-risk patients should be aware of it and know how to diagnose it."

Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, said she was surprised and intrigued by the study.

Hamilton is in the midst of a 10-year food strategy, she said, which aims to improve access to healthy food. 

"We know that food security is a significant issue," she said. "We have substantial numbers of people in this community who are what we call food insecure."

People tend to talk about scurvy in a historical context, she said. "To know it's happening right here in our community is an important alarm."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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