Rickets may make a shock comeback: Leading doctor issues warning over rise in food poverty
Northern Ireland is facing a potential rickets epidemic unless food poverty is addressed, a senior medical professional has said.
A disease associated with poverty, rickets affects bone development in children and can lead to deformities such as bow legs.
Most often seen in developing countries, it is caused by malnutrition and particularly a lack of calcium and vitamin D.
However, there has been a rise in the number of cases in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England.
Dr John Middleton, vice president for policy at the UK's Faculty of Public Health, has warned that food poverty means conditions such as rickets and malnutrition are becoming more common.
One major contributing factor is that food prices have risen by 12% since 2007 – while wages have fallen by 7.6% in relative terms over the same period.
An increase in fuel bills also means many are struggling to feed their families, Dr Middleton added. He has called for a national healthy food policy, with particular emphasis on access, affordability and nutritional value.
Dr Gerry Waldron, a Northern Ireland member of the same health faculty, said the number of cases of rickets in Northern Ireland was still low – but he warned it could become an epidemic if food poverty was not addressed.
While there are no official figures on how many people in Northern Ireland are currently in food poverty, food banks are becoming a more common sight here. Almost 20 are currently operating, most appearing within the last 12 months.
More than half-a-million people in the UK are dependent on food banks, according to a 2013 report by Oxfam. Dr Waldron said: "There are concerns on two levels. One is the emergence of a lot of diseases that were considered almost gone, such as rickets, which is a disease of poverty, and is emerging again in parts of the UK.
"The other issue is greater numbers of people that are becoming increasingly dependent on food banks. That is something that, especially in the last couple of years, have increased in Northern Ireland.
"I think the very fact they have been increasing is an indirect indication that the number of people in Northern Ireland suffering from food poverty is increasing because if there was no need for them, they wouldn't be established."
Dr Waldron called for Stormont to introduce a living wage, warning that conditions were ripe for rickets to make a bigger comeback.
"It's not a very noticeable problem in Northern Ireland at the minute but our concern is that where you have a situation where the price of food is rising and the real income rate is falling, we are getting to the stage where people's diets are such that we would get into that condition," he said.
"It's something that could come back, when people get to the stage where they are having to make those choices about what can they afford on their budget. The reason people get rickets is a poor diet, you have to ask why people are getting a poor diet."
Gary McFarlane, director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said that if 44% of the population in Northern Ireland were either in fuel poverty or at risk, the figure was likely to be the same for food poverty.
Food poverty is having no choice but to spend significantly more than 10% of household income on food, as defined by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
Job losses, rising food prices and changes to benefits are believed to have heightened the extent of the problem.
Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that 20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14 by the three main food aid providers. This is 54% more than in 2012/13.