A lack of decent food is leading to a rise in Victorian diseases such as malnutrition, scurvy and rickets - Jayne Dowle

Given the moral abyss of politics and public life, there are some people who would dearly love a return to ‘Victorian values’. But if turning back time also includes bringing back to life antediluvian diseases such as malnutrition, scurvy and rickets, we really need to stop the clock, and fast.

Almost 11,000 people in England were hospitalised with malnutrition last year, according to research obtained by a national newspaper’s health commission under Freedom of Information laws.

Cases of malnutrition have more than doubled in a decade and have quadrupled since 2007/8 as austerity, the Covid pandemic and the current cost of living crisis have wreaked havoc on the nation’s health.

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From 2022 to April 2023, 10,896 NHS patients - including 312 children - were hospitalised with the wasting condition in England.

'Anna Taylor, director of the Food Foundation, has described the UK’s current food environment as a “ticking time bomb for health”.''Anna Taylor, director of the Food Foundation, has described the UK’s current food environment as a “ticking time bomb for health”.'
'Anna Taylor, director of the Food Foundation, has described the UK’s current food environment as a “ticking time bomb for health”.'

Dr Clare Gerada, president of the Royal College of GPs, is rightly incandescent. “If this [the findings] is indicative of the health of our most vulnerable, then it is shocking,” she said in response. “The poorest people in this country are poorer than any other counterparts in Europe . . . and it’s poor diet… This isn’t about the health system, it’s about the social determinants of ill health, indicative of the last 15 years of austerity.”

Malnutrition in the modern, western world is a more complex condition than we might expect. A person can be both obese and suffering from malnutrition if they are not eating enough healthy foods and become deficient in essential minerals and vitamins.

Other diseases too are down to not enough of the right kind of food. Lack of Vitamin D and calcium, for example, are major factors behind the rise in cases of rickets; in the last year, 482 patients in England were admitted to hospital with the condition.

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Rickets affects bone development, causing pain, poor growth and weak bones that can lead to deformities of the spine and legs. It mostly disappeared in the West in the early 1900s after foods started being fortified with vitamin D.

Dr Gerada says that people are “doing without”, with parents struggling to provide the basics for their children, with many elderly people existing on a diet of “tea and toast”, leading to scurvy.

Scurvy, the scourge of sailors who lived on ship’s biscuits and rum during long sea journeys, is preventable with adequate Vitamin C.

Left untreated, scurvy can lead to organ collapse and death. We now live in a country where elderly people in particular are suffering from this historic disease because they can’t afford enough fruit and vegetables in their diets.

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So far, no-one in government or Opposition has responded to these shocking findings.

However, experts are pulling no punches when it comes to pointing out what should be done.

Anna Taylor, director of the Food Foundation, has described the UK’s current food environment as a “ticking time bomb for health”.

A nutritionist with a long career in supporting projects in Africa and South Asia, Taylor argues that here in England we have a diet crisis parallel to, “some of the poorest countries in the world that have got very high levels of undernutrition in children and very high levels of childhood stunting.”

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I am reminded of some (very non-scientific) research I did about 15 years ago when working on a volunteer-led community book project here in Barnsley. Our group, made of mostly people born in the 1940s, when free health care came in with the NHS, explored the ‘tall gene’ as we strove to answer why many of their children and grandchildren turned out to grow to above-average height when their own parents and grandparents were of small build.

We agreed that high levels of poverty in working class communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were to blame. There was an official outcry when many soldiers recruited to serve their country during the First World War were found unfit for service, because poverty and poor diet had left them with a terrible legacy; preventable diseases, stunted, under-height and under-weight.

Dr Gerada suggests universal free school meals are the answer. This would help, obviously, but only in term time, and would not address extremely worrying levels of diet-related ill health in other sectors of the population, especially the elderly.

Without decent food, no-one has a chance. We need politicians to pick up this research and come up with long-term, sustainable solutions, before the clock slips back, irretrievably.