Has scare-mongering around skin cancer contributed to the resurgence in rickets?

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I spotted this article earlier this week in the UK national newspaper The Telegraph. It concerns warnings about vitamin D deficiency, and particularly how the less-than-brilliant summer we had in the UK can only add to our woes in this respect. The end result may well be an upsurge in the rates of rickets (poorly developed and deformed bone) in children, as well as an increased risk of other symptoms including muscular aches and pains.

The article quotes an orthopaedic surgeon who believes he can quite-accurately predict those who are likely to be vitamin D deficient. Girls who are thin and pale and covered up and rarely expose skin to sunlight as well as boys who spend prolonged hours indoors playing computer games. These factors, alongside some pretty dismal weather, are very likely to be contributing to vitamin D deficiency here in the UK.

But I think there’s another factor which is worth bearing in mind: For years now our Government, and most health professionals and health agencies have warned us of the supposed perilous dangers of sunlight with regard to our skin health, and particularly the propensity of sunlight to ‘trigger’ malignant melanoma. As a result, many people have become almost fearful of the sun for themselves and particularly, where relevant, their children. Sunscreens may have some role and I don’t advise burning to a crisp, but I suspect the general fear-mongering around skin cancer has caused the pendulum to swing way to far over to one side.

It should be perhaps borne in mind too that the role of sunlight exposure in melanoma is not as clear-cut as some would have us believe. While there is good evidence linking longer sunlight exposure with an increased risk of relatively harmless non-melanoma skin cancers (known as squamous cell and basal cell cancers), it turns there is some evidence linking longer sunlight exposure with reduced risk of melanoma. It’s also a condition that is more common in indoor workers than outdoor workers such as farmers and gardeners. Also, the majority of squamous and basal cell cancers occur in sun-exposed parts of the body (e.g. face and back of the hand) while the majority of malignant melanomas do not.

So there is reason to believe that many of the concerns about sunlight and skin cancer been overblown, and have also contributed to generally inadequate vitamin D levels in the UK (and elsewhere). And this is likely to be contributing to the disease burden, not just in the form of rickets and muscle pain, but a range of other issues as well including osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and enhanced risk of many different forms of cancer.

At this time of year in the UK there is zero chance of making vitamin D from sunlight (the sun is too low in the sky and by the time the sun’s rays hit the Earth they have lost any vitamin D-generating power).

I advise concerned individuals to have their vitamin D levels checked. Here in the UK this can be done quite economically (£25.00) and conveniently via this service. More information and advice about vitamin D can be found in a recent article which you can read here.

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