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Infant malnutrition: A return to Victorian values?

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The UK’s worrying levels of food poverty  The UK’s worrying levels of food poverty have led to the return of diseases associated with the Victorian age

Rickets was a scourge of dark, polluted, overcrowded Victorian slums. In 1855, Samuel Pearce, the Medical Officer of Health, for St Matthew, Bethnal Green, East London described the area as being as being ‘densely filled by the poorest class’, a labyrinth of streets where ‘hundreds swarm like bees in close, un-sunned, low-lying courts’.1

Rickets, not surprisingly, was rife: 21.4% of children’s skeletons buried in a Bethnal Green cemetery between 1840 and 1855 showed evidence of rickets.1 A 1884 survey reported discovering signs of rickets in every child examined in Clydeside.2 As late as the 1930s, more than 80% of children in London and Durham showed symptoms of the disorder.3 As Roberta Bivins notes, rickets was ‘an emblematic indicator of preventable child malnutrition’.3

So, you might expect that rickets has long been consigned to the history books along with bustles, traction engines and the British Empire. Certainly, hospitalisations for rickets were low in the 1960s and 1970s. Rates then declined further, reaching a nadir of 3.4 children younger than 15 years per million between 1991 and 1996. But rickets seems to be making a comeback: hospitalisations for rickets reached 17.8 children per million between 2007 and 2011. Most of these were younger than 5 years of age.4

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