| 3.9°C Belfast

Free vitamins plan for under-fives


NHS recommendations are for children aged from six months to five years to be given daily vitamin drops

NHS recommendations are for children aged from six months to five years to be given daily vitamin drops

NHS recommendations are for children aged from six months to five years to be given daily vitamin drops

All under-fives could get free vitamins under plans being considered by the Government.

At present, only low-income families qualify for vitamins on the NHS but r ising fears about the number of children developing rickets - caused by a lack of vitamin D - has prompted a rethink.

England's chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has asked the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) to examine whether all children should receive drops or tablets containing vitamins A, C and D.

NHS recommendations are for all youngsters aged six months to five years to be given daily vitamin drops, but parents have to pay for them unless they are part of the free Healthy Start programme.

Evidence suggests take-up of the vitamins is low among poorer families but even children in better-off families may not be not getting enough.

Nice is likely to look at the cost-effectiveness of introducing free vitamins for children aged up to two, and for all youngsters up to five.

Experts are worried by rising cases of rickets, with 40% of children estimated to have vitamin D levels below the recommended amount.

The best source of vitamin D, which is essential for keeping bones and teeth healthy, is sun on the skin but a lack of exposure to sunlight and parents covering their children in sunscreen is having an impact.

Vitamin D occurs naturally in only a few foods, such as oily fish and eggs, and is added to some items such as fat spreads and breakfast cereals.

The NHS recommends babies and children aged under five should get seven to 8.5 micrograms of vitamin D every day.

Babies who drink at least 500ml of infant formula a day do not need vitamin drops as they are already added to the drink.

There are also worries over children not getting enough vitamin A, which is essential for strengthening the immune system, vision and maintaining healthy skin.

It is found in dairy, fortified fat spreads, carrots, sweet potatoes, swede, mangoes and dark green vegetables such as spinach, cabbage and broccoli.

Vitamin C is essential for boosting the immune system and helps the body absorb iron.

Good sources include oranges, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers.

Prof Davies said: "We know that many children, not just those in vulnerable groups, have vitamin deficiency."

She said rickets was making a comeback, adding: "It's appalling."

She said: "We are offering these vitamins to vulnerable children and the take-up is low, but many children not in these communities need these vitamins too."

She said a scheme in Birmingham to offer vitamin D supplements to all children means one in five now take the tablets.

The scheme has halved the number of cases of rickets and other vitamin D deficiency problems in the area.

The Nice review comes as Professor Davies published a report on children's health, detailing the need to invest in young people.

It said reducing obesity by one percentage point in children could save the NHS £1 billion a year due to fewer long-term health problems.

Professor Davies said 12.5% of toddlers are now obese as are 17% of boys and 16% of girls aged up to 15, adding that the "long-term consequences are massive".

She said: "We need to save our children from obesity, not only from bullying but from the horrible health outcomes that come later in life from obesity."

She added: "We need to save them from obesity because it makes economic sense to our society."

The report also highlighted how five more children die every day from potentially avoidable causes in the UK compared to Sweden.

This is mostly due to the impact of maternal health in pregnancy and the care given to children in their first year of life.

The report also calls for "risky behaviours" - such as drinking, unprotected sex and taking drugs - to be re-named "exploratory behaviours" in "order to be fair and destigmatise".

Dr Hilary Cass, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "We know that the UK lags behind much of Europe when it comes to child mortality rates and that there is too much variation in care of some common conditions such as asthma and diabetes.

"We're also faced with one in three children aged nine who are overweight or obese and storing up health problems for the future, and increasing numbers of children suffering from poor mental health.

"Today's report provides a timely reminder of the challenges we face and the importance of child health in the overall health of the nation."

Children's health minister, Dr Dan Poulter, said: "For too many years, Britain's health outcomes and care for children with illnesses like epilepsy have not been good enough by the standards of other European countries.

"That is why, from the first day I was appointed as a health minister last September, I have made improving children's health a top priority.

"We know that children who grow up happy and healthy are much more likely to work hard, do better at school and later in life. So it is crucial we get this right and give each and every child the very best start in life."


Claire Lemer, editor of the report, said: "There is no single reason why parents do not give their children vitamins.

"It could be due to a range of reasons - from not being aware of their benefits to them not being easily accessible.

"But we do know from studies that making vitamins available to all can lead to a boost in families taking up the offer."