As hard as it is to believe, scurvy has reemerged as a health problem in the United States in the twenty-first century. Beginning with scattered reports in the early 1990s, the resurgence of scurvy became a national health concern by 1999. Survey research by Arizona State University found in the late 1990s that 12 per cent of elementary school aged boys and 13 per cent of elementary school aged girls had a vitamin C intake of less than 30 milligrams a day. Among 13- to 18-year-olds, 14 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls had insufficient intakes of vitamin C.
Caused by insufficient intakes of vitamin C, scurvy’s primary symptom is weakened connective tissue. The damage to collagen in connective tissue caused by scurvy causes unusual bleeding and bruising, as well as the red burst vessels in the eyes known as petechiae.
Because their bodies grow rapidly, even smaller amounts vitamin C deficiency can cause scurvy in children. Elementary school aged children can be diagnosed with osteoporosis and thinning bones. They can become irritable and seem to have a kind of off-again, on-again ADHD. The initial symptoms of scurvy in adults are vague, sometimes just irritability and a tendency to get cold. As many as 25 percent of smokers are deficient in vitamin C.
Avoiding scurvy is as easy is drinking a cup of orange juice or eating a piece of fruit five days a week. Why don’t children do this?
The Arizona State researchers found that vitamin C deficient boys tended to choose chocolate milk instead of juice. They also tended to drink more cola, coffee, and tea. Among girls, the data are more straightforward. Girls who become vitamin C deficient simply do not drink vitamin C rich juices. They do not drink more chocolate milk, colas, coffee, or tea.
Interestingly, both vitamin C rich and vitamin C deficient diets of American children were low in vitamin-rich vegetables, even tomatoes. Children whose blood analyses indicated adequate vitamin C, however, ate an average of 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, compared to just 2 servings for children who were at risk of or who suffered scurvy.
Don’t overcorrect. Scurvy can also be caused by consuming too many vitamin C-rich foods, and then reducing vitamin C consumption to normal levels. A colleague of mine in Germany noted the case of a man from Sweden who vacationed in Florida one winter, drinking 8 to 10 glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice every day. Several months after he returned to Sweden, despite eating “normal” amounts of vitamin C foods, he developed all the symptoms of full-blown scurvy. His body had become accustomed to excreting excess amounts of this water-soluble vitamin and failed to readjust when he started consuming less vitamin C.