Physicians have seen a rise in the number of infants suffering from rickets

August 10, 2000

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - In the past 10 years, physicians have been seeing an increase in the number of infants diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency rickets, a disease once considered to be virtually nonexistent, according to an article in the August edition of the Journal of Pediatrics.

African-Americans are more susceptible to the disease because dark skin inhibits the absorption of sunlight, which is needed to make Vitamin D. "We have seen a 4.4 increase in the number of African-American babies with the disease and a three-fold increase in all babies," said Robert P. Schwartz, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist and an investigator in the study.

Rickets is the softening and weakening of the bones due to the body's inability to absorb calcium, usually because of a vitamin D deficiency. A healthy person gets vitamin D from two sources: food and sunlight.

Thirty African-American infants were included in the study, beginning in 1988. All patients were breast-fed without receiving supplemental vitamin D for an average of 12.5 months. The infants were suffering from failure to thrive, bone fractures and bow legs, all common problems with a vitamin D deficiency if left untreated.

"Rickets, can cause severe health problems including seizures from low calcium levels," Schwartz said.

"We found that the number of women who are choosing to breastfeed has dramatically increased in the last decade and their babies were not getting adequate amounts of vitamin D added to their diet," said Shelley R. Kreiter, M.D., pediatrician and principal investigator of the study.

While breastfeeding is the optimal way to ensure that a child receives the proper nutrients and is the ideal nutrition for infants, the vitamin D content of breast milk is low and infants and children need supplemental vitamin D as a complement to their diet when they are exclusively breastfeeding. Drs. Schwartz and Kreiter recommend starting the vitamin supplement at birth or by two months of age.

North Carolina is the only state that has recently begun to distribute vitamins D, A and C in liquid form to all exclusively breastfeeding infants, according to Schwartz.

"All a mom has to do is request the vitamin supplements from her physician," Schwartz said. "This disease is 100 percent preventable."

The vitamin supplement is not necessary for mothers who choose to feed their infants formula, because vitamin D was added to formula in the 1930s.
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Physicians at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also participated in the study.

Media Contact: Rae Beasley, 336-716-6878 or Jim Steele 336-716-3487.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center

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