Aussie mums-to-be are being urged to take vitamin D supplements to tackle the rise in a preventable bone disease in babies.
Despite living in a nation of sun lovers, experts are seeing an increase in vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women, and babies with the bone disease rickets.
A rise in a disease of the past
Rickets, which prevents children’s growing bones from developing properly, is caused by a lack of vitamin D. An unborn baby gets vitamin D from its mum, as do babies who are breastfed. If a mum-to-be is vitamin D deficient, her baby can develop the preventable disease.
The increase in cases is being linked to sun-safe messages, women covering up for cultural and religious reasons and the increased migration of darker-skinned women to Australia. People with dark skin tend to absorb less sunlight.
“In Melbourne, more than 80 per cent of women who were pregnant and who covered up had severe vitamin D deficiency … we’re not talking about mild amounts,” Professor of Endocrine Physiology from Sydney University Rebecca Mason told Ten Eyewitness News.
“This was in the 1990s. A follow up was done about five or six years later, and of those women who were shown to be deficient at the time, 50 per cent of them weren’t offered treatment – 50 per cent of those who were offered treatment didn’t take it.”
Professor Mason, who’s been studying vitamin D deficiency for decades, says rickets wasn’t seen a lot in the early part of the century in Australia, because people spent lots of time outside.
“But in the last 30 to 40 years, there has been increasing presentations. It’s still not very common, but because it is absolutely preventable, and cause major problems, it is very important to be aware of it and try to prevent it.”
What is rickets?
Rickets can cause babies to have soft and weakened bones, fractures, bone and muscle pain, and bony deformities. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for the growth and development of strong, healthy bones.
Experts say an increase in the disease and are calling for all pregnant women to ensure they have sufficient vitamin D. There have been reported increases of rickets cases at Monash Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and Campbelltown Hospital in Sydney.
An international consensus recommendation for the management of rickets calls for vitamin D to be taken by pregnant women and babies up to 12 months old.
“It’s similar to the way we prevent spina bifida by recommending folate to pregnant women. If you want to prevent rickets then you recommend everyone take vitamin D during pregnancy and for the first 12 months of the baby’s life and what that should do is almost eradicate nutritional rickets,” Professor of Paediatric Bone and Mineral Medicine at Sydney University and lead author of the consensus Craig Munns told The Daily Telegraph.
How can it be prevented?
According to Health Direct, the best source of vitamin D is sunlight. Doctors recommend about half an hour of sunlight a day, depending on the time of year and skin type. Generally, the amount of sun needed is less than the amount that causes burning or skin to tan.
Combining sun exposure with a pregnancy supplement containing 400 IU vitamin D is also recommended, however, a higher amount may be needed so women are urged to see their doctor.