Hamiltonians are developing scurvy, study shows — particularly the most vulnerable
A new McMaster study shows there were at least 13 cases of scurvy in the last 9 years
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.
"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.
"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."