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A disease we think of as from history books is making a comeback in Australia due to our poor diets

Brad Crouch, April 29, 2019 7:00PM The Advertiser

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Aria and Shylah are preventing scurvy by eating watermelon and orange, which both contain vitamin C. Picture: Jonathan Ng media_cameraAria and Shylah are preventing scurvy by eating watermelon and orange, which both contain vitamin C. Picture: Jonathan Ng


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A serious disease we associate with sailors on long voyages hundreds of years ago is making people sick in modern-day Australia.

The disease is called scurvy. It was once called the “plague of the sea” and is caused by not eating enough vitamin C, which is found in fruit and vegetables.

Medical experts blame the availability of junk food, lack of awareness about nutrition and the development of cities, leaving less space for backyard fruit trees.

Peaches on Tree media_cameraPeaches on a tree. Most backyards used to have fruit trees, providing enough fresh fruit for the family, friends and neighbours. Picture: iStock.

Doctors in Adelaide hospitals are treating cases of scurvy and are alarmed to see people on low incomes facing preventable* disease due to poor diet.

Forward-thinking explorers such as Captain James Cook — who sailed to Australia 250 years ago — managed to prevent scurvy in the 1700s by providing regular fresh food and making sure everyone kept clean on long voyages.

The Advertiser Library media_cameraA replica of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour. Captain Cook tried preventing scurvy on long voyages by making sure everyone had some fresh food, which was a great success.

Scurvy symptoms include weakness, fatigue* and sore arms and legs.

Without treatment, decreased red blood cells*, gum disease, changes to hair and bleeding from the skin may occur. In the worst cases, scurvy can cause death.

Doctors at Royal Adelaide Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre, both in South Australia, are seeing patients with severe haemorrhages*, including one man with a deep ulcer* on his lower back “as big as a dinner plate”.

Dr Genevieve Gabb, who works at the RAH, said in one three-month period alone she treated four patients with scurvy. She said many have a combination of low income including homelessness, as well as mental health issues.

“I had one man say to me he has been thinking about buying a banana — it broke my heart, most of us buy a piece of fruit without thinking about it,” she said.

“A generation* ago everyone had backyard fruit trees and you ate them for free, now urbanisation* means those trees are gone and people are just not eating the fresh fruit and vegetables they need to combat an entirely preventable disease.

“The cases we are seeing are isolated* but pretty dramatic — some people are really ill and many with rashes or bleeds are being misdiagnosed*.

“People are at high risk where there is a combination of mental health issues and financial stress.”

Dr Gabb said patients presenting with full-blown scurvy are “sporadic*” but the numbers with vitamin C deficiency is much greater.

One survey of a clinic at Flinders Medical Centre found three quarters of patients had some vitamin C deficiency while a survey of mental health patients at another medical clinic in South Australia found half did not have adequate vitamin C.

QLD_CP_WELL_SCURVY_30NOV16(2) media_cameraFresh fruit seller Jess White with foods packed with vitamin C. Not everyone can afford to buy fresh food. Picture: Marc McCormack

Retired doctor Professor Warren Jones has been monitoring* the situation and says it is “shameful” that vitamin C deficiency is so widespread.

“It is a scathing* indictment* of our government and our social values that the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society are currently suffering from this preventable disease,” he said.

Prof Jones said the nutrition scandal should be an election issue as scurvy is an entirely preventable disease.

Doctors at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, NSW, also reported seeing an increase in the number of patients with scurvy.

mandarins media_cameraClementines are a great source of vitamin C.

The human body can’t make vitamin C, so we must eat or drink it.

Vitamin C is found in plant foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Foods high in vitamin C include berries, citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, mandarins, limes), kiwifruit, tomatoes, broccoli and sprouts.

It is also called ascorbic acid.

Vitamin C helps our body’s cells grow and repair.

If we get an injury such as a cut, having enough vitamin C helps the cut heal.

It helps keep our bones, teeth and cartilage strong and healthy. It also helps our immune system work as it should, which in turn helps protect us from getting colds and other sickness and getting well quickly.

Vitamin C also helps us absorb an important mineral called iron from the food we eat.


  • preventable: can be avoided
  • fatigue: tiredness
  • red blood cells: cells in our blood that help carry oxygen to where it is needed
  • haemorrhages: serious bleeding
  • ulcer: open sore
  • generation: all the people born and living around the same time, means about 25-30 years
  • urbanisation: increase in proportion of people living in cities and towns
  • isolated: cut off from others
  • misdiagnosed: when an illness is incorrectly thought to be something else
  • sporadic: scattered cases
  • monitoring: checking frequently and regularly
  • scathing: harshly critical
  • indictment: a thing to shows a system or situation is really bad


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  1. Why was scurvy called the “plague of the sea”?
  2. How many patients with scurvy did Dr Gabb treat in one three-month period?
  3. Can the human body make vitamin C?
  4. List your favourite foods that include vitamin C.
  5. Name two things vitamin C is important for.


1. Create a Fact File
Many people will not have heard of the disease scurvy.

Create a Fact File about scurvy to inform people about this disease. Use information in the article to help you.

Make sure you include the following information; What is scurvy? What are the symptoms? How is it caused? What can prevent it? Why is it becoming prevalent in our society?

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Science

2. Extension
Sadly, this disease, although easily prevented, is making people sick in modern-day Australia. There are a number of causes for this mentioned in the article.

In a table write each cause in a separate column.

Underneath each reason, write a possible solution (or a number of solutions) to prevent people from becoming ill from scurvy (and other diet-related diseases). Your solution might be something that can be done by individuals, organisations or through government policy.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Critical and Creative Thinking

After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day? If not, why not?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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