'It's like the 19th century' - scurvy and rickets make a dramatic return to Preston

Doctors at hospitals in Preston and Chorley have seen a sharp increase in malnutrition over the last three years - even seeing patients with rickets and scurvy.

By Megan Titley
Wednesday, 6th March 2019, 8:23 pm
Updated Wednesday, 6th March 2019, 9:28 pm
Major Alex Cadogan of the Salvation Army foodbank in Preston
Major Alex Cadogan of the Salvation Army foodbank in Preston

Charities have warned that many households cannot afford a healthy diet, and called for government action to increase access to nutritious food.

Foodbank volunteers in Preston have said they are not surprised by the revelations that some people are suffering from disease commonly associated with Victorian times and are seeing no let up in demand for food.

Patients were admitted to hospital with malnutrition around 70 times at the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in the 12 months to March 2018, according to NHS Digital data.

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This was an increase of around 75 per cent from the same period two years ago, when there were 40 recorded cases.

The county’s NHS Foundation Trust also saw cases of rickets and scurvy during 2017-18.

Natalie Thomas, the community assistant at the Salvation Army which runs the food bank in Preston, says she is not shocked that hospitals in the county have seen people suffering from scurvy and rickets.

“It’s scary, it really is but I’m really not all that shocked knowing what we see in here,” she said.

“It’s like we are going backwards. It’s quite believable with the amount of bags we are giving out at the moment.

“It’s not getting any better. Since July when Universal Credit came in we’ve been giving out approximately 1,000 bags of food a month.

“Since then we have not had any quieter months during the year because people are now getting monthly benefit payments rather than fortnightly payments.

“It’s not surprising for us. The Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is also collecting food for us.”

Issuing an appeal for residents to continue donating food Natalie added: “We are clearing 150 trays of food a month so we are struggling.”

Because of storage issues the foodbank in Preston does not hand out fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis.

Major Alex Cadogan said: “We are not medical professionals but in our food parcels we try and give out a healthy diet but we can only give what we are given.

“When we are sometimes in receipt of fresh fruit and vegetables we distribute it as rapidly as we can. We do hand out tinned fruit and vegetables regularly.”

Founder of the Larder cafe co-operative in Lancaster Road, Preston, Kay Johnson also told the Post the figures did not come as a surprise to her.

She said: “I think it’s down to affordability and it’s also down to not having the skills and the resources.

“A lot of people don’t have the facilities to be able to cook so they may use a microwave and processed food.

“The nutritional value of processed food is minimal and its cheap as well.

“It doesn’t surprise me. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this.

“Schools don’t teach the skills and you can’t just know how to cook if your parents haven’t taught you.”

Rising malnutrition

Across England, malnutrition cases increased by 18 per cent, from 7,855 cases in 2015-16 to 9,307 cases in 2017-18.

Malnutrition is caused by a person’s diet containing either not enough, or too much, of the nutrients they need, according to the NHS.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an anti-poverty charity, warned that over 1.5 million households across the country are regularly left struggling to afford essentials such as food.

Chris Goulden, from the organisation, said: “Living in poverty can severely restrict a family’s ability to put food on the table and lead a healthy life.

“The poorest fifth of households spend twice as much of their income on food and fuel compared with those in the richest fifth, meaning those on the lowest incomes are most vulnerable to price rises, inflation and the benefits squeeze.”

Public Health England recommends that people follow its Eatwell Guide to make sure they are eating a healthy, balanced diet.

However, a 2018 report by independent think tank the Food Foundation found more than one in four households would need to spend more than a quarter of their disposable income after housing costs to meet the guide’s recommendations.

For parents in the bottom 20 per cent of earners, the cost would be 42 per cent of their income.

Across England, scurvy has increased by 14 per cent since 2015-16, rising to 167 incidents last year, while rickets cases fell by 10 per cent to 474 incidents.

The Food Foundation warned the figures were signs of a “broken food system”.

Executive director Anna Taylor said: “Although cases of rickets, scurvy and malnutrition are caused by a complicated range of factors, they are not conditions that we should have to be talking about anymore in a country as wealthy as the UK.

“Nearly four million children in the UK live in households for whom a healthy diet is unaffordable. We need industry and government to take action now to ensure that everyone has access to enough nutritious food.”

Scurvy and rickets

Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C, a vitamin which can be found in citrus fruits. It is most well known as a disease which sailors suffered and died from during the mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries while they were away at sea with no access to vitamin C.

- Rickets is a skeletal disorder caused by a lack of vitamin D which can be found in calcium.


A spokesman from the Department of Work and Pensions said there were now fewer households with low incomes.

“We know there’s more to do ensure that every family has access to nutritious, healthy food”, she said.

“Malnutrition is a complex issue and most patients diagnosed in England have other serious health and social problems.

“For people that need extra support with their living costs we spend £90 billion a year on working-age benefits and will be spending £28 billion more by 2022 than we do now.”

Tooth decay

Preston is among the worst areas in the UK for children who have to have their decaying teeth taken out.

Almost nine out of 10 tooth extractions in hospital for very young children are for rotting teeth, figures show.

Children aged five and under accounted for 14,545 tooth extractions in 2017/18 in England, with most of those - 12,783 - being for tooth decay.

Older children were also affected. Among all children aged up to the age of 19, some 38,385 procedures were carried out to remove decaying teeth, although this was down slightly on the 39,010 the year before.

Nevertheless, around 105 children per day have their teeth removed in hospital because of tooth decay that is preventable.

Public Health England (PHE) is urging parents to watch their children’s sugar intake.

It said most youngsters having around eight cubes of sugar more per day than the recommended limit of five cubes.

The British Dental Association (BDA), which also looked at the NHS data, said it showed that children in parts of Yorkshire and the North West are up to five times more likely to undergo hospital extractions than the national average.

The worst affected areas include Preston, Blackpool, Rotherham and Sheffield.

Business delivers fresh boost

Preston’s Recycling Lives is helping communities to tackle food hunger by delivering fresh food to other charitable groups across the county.

Its Food Redistribution Centre – run in partnership with national food charity FareShare – takes surplus stock from supermarkets to redistribute to charities and community groups, to reduce food waste and tackle food hunger.

It is supporting 62 groups across Preston, Chorley, Burnley, Lancaster and Morecambe, ranging from homeless shelters and hospices to community groups in deprived areas.

During February half term it delivered meals to an extra 15 groups in Preston alone, helping them to support families facing so-called ‘holiday hunger’. In 2018 it delivered 19,410 meals to Preston groups during school holidays alone.

Alasdair Jackson, chief executive of Recycling Lives Charity, said: “We’re one of hundreds of charities and community groups across Lancashire working to help vulnerable communities. We provide groups with fresh, quality food to help them to feed people nutritious meals. We know that food hunger just shouldn’t exist in 2019 in the UK but as long as it does we will do this work.”

Hard Times

Scurvy and rickets were rife in Preston - and most other industrial towns and cities - during the Victoria era.

And it was Preston heavy industry that formed the inspiration for one of Charles Dickens’ (pictured) best-known books.

The author, famed for his books about the impoverished working classes in Victorian England, spent three months in Preston.

His time in the city is widely believed to have inspired his novel Hard Times, about people living in extreme poverty.

Coketown, the fictitious industrial Northern English mill-town where the story takes place, may be partially based on 19th-century Preston.