It is estimated that 40% of young children are vitamin D deficient, which can lead to the brittle bone disease rickets. Over the last few years, numbers have increased fourfold, with more than 760 children were admitted to hospital with the condition in 2013 – leading to the launch of the Vitamin D Mission.
The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital launched the initiative earlier this year alongside Cow & Gate, Dlux & Kelloggs and now a Guardian roundtable has recently debated how to properly tackle the problem. Members the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) at the event worked together to agree that a strategy needs to be adopted, especially as 80% of the population have low levels of vitamin D and most teenagers are below the optimum level.
Despite the fact that vitamin D deficiency - vital for growth and strong bones - is a serious and growing problem in this country, the message is still not getting across to the general public and no proper guidelines have been issued. Many people assume it is a problem that affects Third World countries, or a disease relegated to the past, due to poor nutrition. Yet rickets causes bone tenderness, skeletal deformity including the classic 'bow-leg' effect; in extreme cases, it can lead to convulsions or heart failure
Watch: Making vitamin D a healthy daily habit – Dr Carrie Ruxton
Experts think fear of skin cancer is one of the contributory factors. One of the main ways the body makes vitamin D is through exposure to sunshine; however, parents now slather their children in high-factor sun cream and keep them out of the sun. Also, many Muslim communities cover themselves up so they are not exposed to enough sun. And not taking vitamin-D rich cod liver oil is thought to be another cause.
However, getting the message across to some parents is a stumbling block. Current advice is for all pregnant and breastfeeding women to take vitamin D supplements, as well as babies and children aged six months to five years. Breastfed babies, however, may need supplements from one month of age if their mother did not take vitamin D during pregnancy.
The roundtable heard that fortifying staple foods such as milk and bread with vitamin D, and supplements in drops or pill form was needed. They also concluded that it was crucial to get the balance right in regard to public health messages - it was generally agreed the current ones were too complicated, and a clearer approach was needed.
The Vitamin D Mission aims to raise the awareness of children's vitamin D needs. Visit www.vitamindmission.co.uk for details