Rickets is caused by deficiency or impaired metabolism of vitamin D, phosphorus or calcium. Vitamin D is required for absorption of calcium from the gut so a deficiency can lead to softened bones, bone fractures or deformity.
Cases of the disease have risen four-fold in the past 15 years.
Children, young people and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
Low levels of vitamin D have also been associated with osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis and mental health issues.
Fortification of food and milk
Launching its campaign to tackle vitamin D deficiency last week (December 14), the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) recommended further research into the action that could be taken by the food industry.
It said the fortification of food and milk with vitamin D was already taking place in several countries outside the UK, including the US, Canada and Finland.
The RCPCH said the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is looking into proposals for further fortification.
It recommended that the food and pharmaceutical industries worked together to prevent and treat the problem.
Professor Mitch Blair of the RCPCH said: “We know vitamin D deficiency is a growing problem and localised research reveals startling high levels of vitamin deficiency among certain groups, including children.
“People can only get a fraction of their recommended daily amount of vitamin D through food and very little through sunlight.”
Benefits of food fortification
Vitamin D is found naturally in oily fish. Foods that are fortified with small amounts of vitamin D include margarine, infant formula milk, some breakfast cereals.
The RCPCH cited studies that have shown a link between vitamin D deficiencies and strict vegetarian diets, lack of dietary fibre and prolonged breast feeding without vitamin D supplements.
The college also called for more research into the benefits of food fortification, the link between the deficiency and bone disease and a public health awareness campaign.
Blair said: “It’s important to make sure all healthcare professionals can spot the signs of vitamin D deficiency in children: aches and pains, poor growth, muscle weakness and seizures – and make sure they get properly treated.”
Vitamin D deficiency is thought to affect at least half of the UK’s white population, up to 90% of the multi-ethnic populations and a quarter of children.