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The Royal College of of Paediatrics and Child Health wants low-cost vitamin D supplements to be made available, more food fortified with vitamin D and greater public awareness in a bid to tackle the growing problem of vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D deficiency is thought to affect a quarter of all children, at least half the UK’s white population and up to 90 per cent of the multi-ethnic population.
It causes a higher incidences of diabetes, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis and rickets - a bone disease uncommon in the UK since the 19th century.
Recent figures suggest a four-fold increase in incidents of rickets over the last 15 years.
Vitamin D deficiency is a particular problem amongst children and young people and pregnant women.
Professor Mitch Blair, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said: “We know vitamin D deficiency is a growing problem – and localised research reveals startling high levels of vitamin deficiency amongst certain groups including children.
“People can only get a fraction (10 per cent) of their recommended daily amount of vitamin D through food and very little from sunlight. So getting out in the sun more or eating more oily fish isn’t going to solve the problem. Lack of vitamin D is related to a plethora of serious illnesses in children and adults that could be prevented through relatively simple steps such as taking supplements.”
The RCPCH’s campaign calls for vitamin D supplements to be readily available at low-cost and high quality.
It wants an investigation to be carried out into the pros and cons of further fortification of food with vitamin D and professional guidance for healthcare professionals including standardised guidance on how to diagnose and treat diseases linked to vitamin D deficiency.
The RCPCH would also like to see a public awareness campaign with clear information for parents and families on the warning signs of vitamin D deficiency and how to prevent it.
Plus further research into the link between vitamin D deficiency and bone disease as there is currently a dearth of research in this area making high profile child protection cases difficult to resolve.
The RCPCH also wants to see better surveillance to monitor the prevalence and incidence of vitamin D deficiency across the population.
Earlier this year, the Chief Medical Officer recommended that all pregnant and breastfeeding women, children aged six months – five years old and people aged 65 and over should take vitamin D supplements.
Professor Blair added: “The Government’s ‘Healthy Start’ programme provides vitamins free to low income families and ‘at risk’ groups. But these vitamins appear to be in short supply and uptake is low. Ensuring people are aware that they’re available is crucial – and there is some evidence to suggest we need to make these supplements more readily available for the wider population, which is already happening in some countries.
“And equally as important is making sure that all healthcare professionals can spot the signs of vitamin D deficiency in children; aches and pains, poor growth, muscle weakness and seizures – and make sure they get appropriately treated.”
The first stage of the campaign will see the RCPCH produce a series of leaflets for paediatricians and other healthcare professionals highlighting the signs of vitamin D deficiency in patients set to be published in spring 2013.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is currently looking into proposals for further vitamin D fortification of food and drink, as happens in countries including the United States, Canada and Finland.
The call for action from the RCPCH has been welcomed by the Infant & Toddler Forum (ITF).
The ITF said more awareness is needed about meeting requirements in the early years for its benefits to have the best chance for toddlers’ long-term health.
On average, children aged 18 months to three years only consume about a third of their daily requirement of vitamin D because very few are given the recommended supplement.
Some foods are fortified with vitamin D including formula milks, margarine and some yogurts and breakfast cereals. However they contain very small amounts.
The ITF hopes that this new RCPCH call to action can help add to the effort to achieve this.
Judy More, paediatric dietitian and member of the ITF, said: “Unfortunately many parents and healthcare professionals think that a nutritious balanced diet will provide all the vitamins needed by young children. However vitamin D is the exception and even children who eat very well get very little vitamin D from their food. Without a daily vitamin D supplement they are at risk of vitamin D deficiency and along with that poor bone health and susceptibility to infections and long term diseases such as diabetes.”
As part of the combined effort by key stakeholders, in June 2012, the ITF produced Preventing Vitamin D Deficiency in Toddlers; an easy-to-follow resource, containing peer-reviewed guidance, outlining the key role for HCPs in preventing vitamin D deficiency. This provides clarity for HCPs and families on how vitamin D can be safely provided by sunlight, supplements and the very few foods it is present in.
For more information and expert advice on vitamin D and the early years, visit the Infant & Toddler Forum's website: www.infantandtoddlerforum.org