If you've heard its name before, you probably associate it with the navy, pirates, and more generally, bygone days of wooden ships and iron men. And yet, scurvy is gradually making a comeback among developed countries. This fatal disease stems from vitamin C deficiency, and it is spreading in the United States, the nation that bins a quarter of its food supply every year, as well as in other parts of the world.
Scurvy, a sailor's disease
First noticed since the Renaissance, scurvy has followed the first long-distance maritime expeditions around the world like a threatening shadow. Also nicknamed 'plague of the sea,' it strikes mainly among sailors, deprived of certain types of foodstuffs for several months during their long voyages (the crews of Vasco de Gama and Magellan would pay a heavy toll); but it also affected certain areas on dry land (prisons, hospitals, workshops).
Between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, doctors noticed that the consumption of citrus fruits—in particular lemons and oranges—as well as certain herbs such as sorrel, made it possible to protect travellers against this disease, without however knowing exactly why it protected from scurvy. These findings are repeated in A Treatise of the Scurvy, published in 1754 by Scottish physician James Lind.
It was not until the 1930s that vitamin C was identified and isolated, and the disease finally recognised as a dietary deficiency. Since then, it has experienced a massive decline, in particular thanks to faster means of transport, shorter travel times, better health education, as well as increasingly widespread access to fresh fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C. Scurvy indeed seemed to have almost completely disappeared, at least in industrialised countries.
An insidious return within precarious environments
Unfortunately, it seems that this centuries-old disease is gradually gaining ground again. In a new documentary titled Vitamania, the famous Youtuber Derek Muller notes the sad return of scurvy in the United States. There he met Sonny Lopez, a resident of Massachusetts whose bleeding gums, decaying teeth and hair loss have led to a consultation with Dr. Eric Churchill. Diagnosis: Sonny Lopez had scurvy.
It also seemed that he was not the only one in this situation. Dr. Churchill told ScienceAlert:
We diagnosed our first case five or six years ago. This initial case was sent to us by the hospital and it was impressive to say the least: the person ate nothing but cheese and bread. Since then, we have diagnosed between 20 and 30 cases of scurvy.
The primary cause of this return of the disease lies in the precarious living conditions of the people it affects. Sonny Lopez has been prescribed the consumption of one orange per day, but for this man forced to limit himself to a single daily meal, this simple remedy is far from being as accessible as it might be for you and me.
'Many people in financial difficulty tend to opt for foods high in fat, calories, and appetite suppressants,' says Churchill. Unfortunately, the distinction between eating a lot and eating well is felt here: if fatty and sweet dishes are the most affordable today, they are however far from meeting all the nutritional needs of individuals.
A global presence?
A report published in 2016 also reported cases of scurvy, in patients with diabetes, in Australia this time. Researcher Jenny Gunton, who initiated the study, concedes:
Most ate a reasonable amount of vegetables. They just overcooked them, which destroyed vitamin C.
It would therefore seem that lack of security as well as education have a role to play in the reappearance of this disease which was believed to have disappeared. So consider keeping on consuming fresh, vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables on a regular basis and if you want to help someone in need with food and you can, consider skipping on pasta.
And if you can't bring yourself to eat fitrus fruits at home and plan to drink it as fruit juices, you might want to reconsider. Check out the video above to find out why.