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Cost of living crisis sparks troubling rise in malnutrition and return of 'Victorian' diseases

Cases of malnutrition have soared over the past decade, NHS data reveals, while cases of 'Victorian diseases' like scurvy and rickets remain stubbornly high

A doctor listening to a child's back through a stethoscope. Poverty

Malnutrition is on the rise among children. Image: Pixabay

The cost of living crisis is driving a disturbing surge in malnutrition cases and ‘Victorian’ diseases, top doctors have warned.

New statistics reveal the grim toll that food poverty is taking on the nation’s health

10,986 people were diagnosed with malnutrition after being admitted to English hospitals last financial year, including 312 children. This number has quadrupled in 15 years and doubled over the past decade.

Cases of so-called ‘Victorian’ diseases also remain high. Scurvy has nearly tripled since 2007-08, with 171 admissions last financial year, though this is down from a 2018-19 peak of 215.

The number of people diagnosed with rickets – a skeletal disease caused by a sustained lack of Vitamin D – totalled 482 English hospital admissions last financial year. 

As food prices continue to rise, it’s harder for people to access fresh produce, warns professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

“Fast foods’ are cheap, filling and easy to get, but are low in nutritious content,” she said. 

“A poor diet increases a patient’s risk of developing a range of nutritional diseases – malnutrition, rickets, scurvy, vitamin and folate deficiencies which are becoming increasingly common – but can also exacerbate chronic conditions which a patient has already developed.”

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An increasing number of British people now rely on food banks. These community hubs provide an “excellent service”, says Clare Thornton-Wood, a paediatric and adult dietitian and spokesperson for the British Diabetic Association – but have their limitations.

“They are unfortunately not able to reach everyone who needs them and the fresh fruit and vegetable options are often quite limited. 

“This impacts in particular on Vitamin C intake as this is a water soluble vitamin required daily as it is not able to be stored in the body. Prolonged low intake will ultimately lead to scurvy.”

As the price of energy rises, some people are opting for food that doesn’t require heating – choosing a sandwich over a more nutritious soup or pasta, for example. 

“Even among those not using food banks, the need to cut back on spending on food is likely having an impact,” Thornton-Wood warns. 

Cost of living crisis: Why are cases of malnutrition and Victorian diseases so high?

British food price inflation has surged at breakneck speed over the past few months, peaking at 19.2% in March. 

Despite dipping slightly recently, it is unlikely to fall below 10% by the end of the year, the Bank of England predicted last month.

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High food prices make it harder for people to afford the nutrients they need. But the problem is also structural, warns Professor Hawthorne.

Funding cuts for public services over the past decade have “disproportionately” impacted the “UK’s more economically deprived communities”.

Systemic policy change is crucial – from making fresh food accessible to bolstering GP capacity.

“As the front door to the NHS, sufficient funding and support for general practice – including significant investment in retention initiatives to encourage existing GPs to stay in the profession – will be a crucial component in ensuring all patients are able to access the healthcare that they need and that we curb the rise in easily preventable and life-threatening conditions like malnutrition,” Hawthorne said. 

Junior doctors and consultants in England are set to strike throughout September and October as a pay row with the government escalates.

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