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Social Justice

Scurvy and malnutrition in the UK have doubled since 2010

Cases of malnutrition have tripled since David Cameron entered Number 10, as opposition MPs took aim at Tory austerity and growing poverty

After a decade of austerity, illnesses commonly linked to Victorian poverty are making a comeback. 

The number of scurvy, rickets and malnutrition cases in English hospitals has more than doubled since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, with diagnoses of malnutrition alone tripling in that time to more than 10,000. 

The NHS data does not indicate the cause of someone’s illness, meaning they could be caused by the struggle to afford a nutrient-rich diet, or by other conditions which make it difficult for a person to absorb the vitamins they need.

But the growing number of people falling ill due to vitamin deficiencies coincides with soaring poverty and reliance on food banks. The Trussell Trust gave out 2.5 million emergency food parcels last year, a record high that dwarfs the 40,898 handed out in 2010, when David Cameron entered Downing Street.

Graph showing rising malnutrition during soaring poverty
Credit: The Big Issue

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said the scurvy, rickets and malnutrition figures were “a shameful indictment on a decade of the Tories”.

“Poverty is driving greater illness and illness also often traps people in poverty,” he added.

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“The government’s promises to ‘level up’ are exposed as utterly hollow. While deprivation worsens, the Tories refuse to tackle hunger in society.”

Malnutrition is the most commonly experienced illness of the three and mostly seen in older people, with more than two thirds of the 10,109 reported cases among people aged 50 to 89. The number of children diagnosed has also increased, however. In 2010-11, 277 people aged between 0 and 19 were treated in hospital with malnutrition. This had increased to 418.

It causes weight loss, a weakened immune system and in children, can stop them growing.

Scurvy – which can cause bleeding gums, swollen arms and legs, persistent bruising and fatigue – remains relatively uncommon in England. But cases have doubled since 2010-11, from 82 to 171 in 2020-21.

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People who eat few fresh fruit and vegetables or very little food at all are most at risk of coming down with the illness, according to the NHS. It can be fatal if left untreated.

A government spokesperson said ministers were “committed to levelling up and reducing health inequalities across the country”, and said the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities would “ensure everyone can live healthy, happy lives”.

“Malnutrition is a serious condition and we are working with the NHS and public health organisations to tackle its root causes.”

But the figures reported by the Mirror were published just weeks after the government cut universal credit by £20 per week, removing more than £1,040 from the incomes of around 5.5 million people.

Experts warned the cut would increase sickness in areas where people already have the poorest health, accusing the government of ignoring the “inextricable link” between health and poverty.

The cut could force 1.2 million people to start skipping meals, the Trussell Trust warned.

Independent food banks said they expected to see a surge in demand far outweighing any seen during the Covid-19 crisis, with some centres at risk of running out of food altogether. 

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