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Calls For Pregnant Women To Take Vitamin D Supplements To Curb Rise In Rickets

As the demographics of our country change, so too do our health problems.

A resurgence of the preventable disease rickets in children, caused by vitamin D deficiency, has prompted calls to change how at-risk pregnant women are treated.

Despite Australia being the sunburnt country, vitamin D deficiency among some pregnant women has reached high levels.

Professor Rebecca Mason, who has been studying the deficiency for decades, said more darker-skinned women and those who cover up for cultural or religious reasons are most at risk. 

There are calls for pregnant women to be taking vitamin D supplements. Image: Getty

“In Melbourne, more than 80 percent of women who were pregnant and who covered up had severe vitamin D deficiency … we’re not talking about mild amounts,” the Professor of Endocrine Physiology from Sydney University told Ten Eyewitness News.

“This was in the 1990s. A follow up was done about five or six years later, and of those women who were shown to be deficient at the time, 50 percent of them weren’t offered treatment -- 50 percent of those who were offered treatment didn’t take it.”   

Vitamin D helps to promote the body’s absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which builds teeth and bones in babies.

If a mother is deficient in vitamin D, her baby can develop rickets -- a preventable disease that can cause abnormal bone growth, fractures or skeletal deformities. 

And experts are seeing an unusual rise in reported cases.

If a mother has vitamin D defiency, her baby can develop rickets. Image: Getty

“Rickets wasn’t seen a lot once vitamin D was worked out in the early part of the century, and it wasn’t seen a lot in places like Australia where we had mainly Caucasian people and where people spent a lot more time outdoors,” Mason said.

“But in the last 30 to 40 years, there has been increasing presentations. It’s still not very common, but because it is absolutely preventable, and cause major problems, it is very important to be aware of it and try to prevent it.”

A spate of recent cases has been reported at Monash Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and Campbelltown Hospital in Sydney.

High vitamin D deficiency rates recorded in half of women attending Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney now means supplements are taken by all pregnant women and babies in their first 12 months.

Dr Vijay Roach is the vice president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

He agrees with the recommendation from Sydney University’s Craig Munns, who led an international consensus study into infant and childhood vitamin D deficiency.

“It’s important that all pregnant women have sufficient vitamin D,” Dr Roach said.

“The best source is sunlight, so getting at least half an hour of exposure per day will cover your needs. But if that doesn’t work for you or if you have risk factors, then having supplementation as an oral form is valuable.”

“I don’t think there’s reason to be alarmed, it’s more about being aware.”

The current recommended intake of vitamin D is 400 International Units (UI) per day, which Roach said can be reached by taking a routine pregnancy multivitamin.

“But if you’re at a higher risk, than it would be reasonable to think about supplementation and vitamin D is available in separate supplement,” he said.

He said while there is no conclusive evidence of harm for those pregnant women who aren’t at risk to take supplements, the focus should be on the former.

“We’ve identified women who are at risk, so let’s give them extra supplementation and make that routine practice.”