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Starmer slams ‘shocking’ rise in Victorian era diseases as tens of thousands suffer since Sunak became PM

22 January 2024, 08:41

Separately, the Royal College of GPs has complained that the increase in diseases related to nutrient deficiencies have left doctors in a state of “moral distress”.
Separately, the Royal College of GPs has complained that the increase in diseases related to nutrient deficiencies have left doctors in a state of “moral distress”. Picture: Alamy
Connor Hand

By Connor Hand

Tens of thousands of people in the UK have been diagnosed with conditions such as malnutrition, rickets, and scurvy since Rishi Sunak became prime minister in October 2022.

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According to figures obtained from 84 NHS trusts and health boards through Freedom of Information requests, there have been at least 13,000 diagnoses of malnutrition, 15,000 of rickets and more than 150 cases of scurvy in the first 12 months of Sunak’s premiership.

LBC’s findings, which have been described as “shocking” by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, represent a dramatic increase in the incidence of Victorian-era diseases in Britain and suggest that the true extent of the problem remains underreported.

Whilst previous NHS Digital figures place the number of people hospitalised with malnutrition in 2021-22 at just over 10,000, LBC’s data indicates that the true total could be significantly higher, as it includes patients who have been admitted to hospital with a separate condition but have later been diagnosed with these illnesses.

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By encompassing secondary diagnoses, LBC’s analysis shows that the cases of these diseases could be THREE TIMES HIGHER than previous estimates.

Adjusting for the fact only around a third of hospital trusts responded to LBC’s requests in time, the true number of people suffering with these diseases in the UK could be as high as 450 for scurvy, 39,000 for malnutrition and 45,000 for rickets.

In 2010-11, only 3,500 cases of malnutrition were recorded in England.

LBC spoke to ‘Tara’, a single mother who was hospitalised with malnutrition in 2022:

“I was living on £70 per fortnight with my two children… it just came to the point where I was just feeding my children and not myself. I ended up collapsing and ended up in hospital having multiple blood transfusions.”

“I was basically just living on tea, biscuits and sandwiches - or whatever I could have… I could have died. [The doctor] said had this been weeks later, I would have died… basically, if I hadn’t collapsed and ended up in hospital that day, god knows where I’d been. I don’t think I’d be on the phone talking [about this].”

The rise in the number of people developing these illnesses has been noted by Dr Benjamin Jacobs, an NHS consultant pediatrician at the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital in London.

An expert on the treatment of rare bone diseases such as rickets, Dr Jacobs told LBC that the NHS faces a “major problem”:

“Rickets is actually a severe bone disease. It's a major problem, which causes a lot of pain and misery to children. And it is often preventable… even one case of rickets or one case of scurvy is too much.”

Describing the effects rickets can have on young children, Dr Jacobs added: “If it's a very young child, who hasn't yet started walking, or one year old, you might find that they are late to start walking.

Most children are walking before they're one and a half years old, but a child with rickets might be two years old and still not walking because their muscles are weak, the bones are weak. And they're quite miserable because they've been in pain for a long time.”

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On the increase in cases of scurvy, Dr Jacobs said, “I’ve diagnosed three cases myself… scurvy is always preventable. And it is indeed shocking that we're getting these sorts of numbers, you know, hundreds of people with scurvy in the UK”.

As these ailments are typically caused by nutritional deficiencies, experts have pointed to the connection between the cost-of-living crisis and the rise of such ailments in the UK.

According to the Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank focusing on UK living standards, the number of people living in absolute poverty will increase to 12 million over the next year, and Dr Rebecca Sandover, an expert in food poverty at the University of Exeter, says that there is a clear link between the levels of deprivation and these illnesses:

“This is definitely a growing and very concerning problem. In terms of malnutrition, there are very clear links with issues to do with food poverty, linked to the cost of living crisis.

“If people are relying on Food Bank[s]… a lot of that food is commonly tinned, so people accessing those services will not be able to access fresh fruit and vegetables so commonly. There are reports of people cutting back on buying fresh fruit and vegetables from supermarkets.

“There's a lot of goodwill in communities [and] a lot of amazing people doing great jobs to support people. But if they're not given adequate resources and support, then unfortunately, this situation will get worse.”

Separately, the Royal College of GPs has complained that the increase in diseases related to nutrient deficiencies have left doctors in a state of “moral distress” as they are unable to “prescribe money or food” and are therefore not in a position to help.

Reacting to LBC’s findings, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “That’s shocking… In 21st Century Britain, we’re talking about an increased number of children with malnutrition - of course that’s something the government should be ashamed of.”

Pushed as to how Labour would seek to arrest this trend, Sir Keir added, “getting children from the age of five through to the end of primary school into breakfast clubs at every school, [ensuring] they get a decent meal in the morning so they’re not hungry when they’re starting lessons.

“Anyone with kids will have experience of what that looks like and feels like - I want that rolled out across all of our primary schools. There are other things we can do, but that is a very good start.”

Presented with these findings, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care commented, ““It is a clinical fact that in the UK the main causes of malnutrition are not solely due to poor or inadequate eating, while recent NHS data demonstrates there has been no significant rise in hospital admissions for these conditions since 2016.

“We are determined to support people to have a healthy and balanced diet and through our healthy food schemes - Healthy Start, Nursery Milk and the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme - the government is helping more than three million children and providing a nutritional safety net to those who need it the most.”

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