Avast, ye scurvy dogs!

By Adam Florance
Wednesday, 30 November, 2016


It may sound like something from the plot of a Johnny Depp movie, but overcooked vegetables have been identified as the primary culprit behind a recent Australian outbreak of scurvy!

These days scurvy is mostly associated with pirates and sailors of yore but anyone who doesn’t get enough vitamin C in their diet is susceptible to the disease. Professor Jenny Gunton of Westmead Hospital had noticed a number of patients presenting with ulcers and other wounds that refused to heal and started to question the patients about their eating habits. Some were not eating enough fresh fruit and vegetables, but many of her patients were simply overcooking their veggies.

Professor Gunton heads up the Centre for Diabetes, Obesity and Endocrinology research at The Westmead Institute and was surprised to note that even overweight patients can suffer from scurvy. “It highlights a danger that you can consume plenty of calories, yet not receive enough nutrients,” she said.

In her research paper published in the international journal Diabetic Medicine, Professor Gunton recommends testing for vitamin C deficiency among diabetes patients with persistent sores. “While diabetes is not traditionally a risk factor for vitamin C deficiency, the research suggests that clinicians should be alert to the potential problem, particularly if their patients present with unhealed ulcers, easy bruising or gum bleeding without obvious cause,” she said.

Professor Gunton also noted that socioeconomic factors were not indicative of the incidence of scurvy. “This result suggests that despite the large amount of dietary advice readily available to the community, there are still plenty of people — from all walks of life — who are not getting the messages,” she said.

Other recent outbreaks of scurvy have been associated with malnutrition, particularly among refugee populations.

Professor Jenny Gunton with diabetes and scurvy patient Penelope Jackson. Image credit: The Westmead Institute for Medical Research.

The human body does not synthesise vitamin C, making it essential to consume enough fresh fruit and vegetables to maintain healthy levels. Along with other higher primates, humans lack L-gulonolactone oxidase, the enzyme which allows most other animals to make their own vitamin C.

As well as citrus fruits, other common foods which contain high levels of vitamin C include strawberries, capsicum, broccoli, tomatoes and kiwifruit. It is important not to overcook vitamin C-rich foods.

Top image courtesy of Jason Howie under CC BY 2.0

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