The conversations of life

A scurvy outbreak in Sydney – in a hospital – in 2016? It’s true


It sounds like something you would only see in developing countries, but a spate of scurvy has struck down a group of diabetes patients at a western Sydney hospital.

Doctors at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research discovered the illness while investigating a group of patients with wounds that refused to heal.

Other symptoms for scurvy include bleeding gums, loose teeth, joint pain and blood spots in the skin.

Clinician-researcher Prof Jenny Gunton realised the problem was a chronic lack of vitamin C and diagnosed the historic disease, usually associated with old-world sailors on long voyages, and identified by Captain Cook.

And its cause? Our poor contemporary diets.

Modern diets falling short

Dr Jenny Gunton with one of her patients Penelope Jackson
Dr Jenny Gunton with one of her patients Penelope Jackson

“When I asked about their diet, one person was eating little or no fresh fruit and vegetables, but the rest ate fair amounts of vegetables; they were simply over-cooking them, which destroys the vitamin C,” Prof Gunton said.

Prof Gunton’s paper, recently published in the international journal Diabetic Medicine, also found socio-economic background didn’t matter – both rich and poor suffered regardless.

“This result suggests that despite the plethora of dietary advice readily available to consumers, there are still plenty of people – from all walks of life – who are not getting the messages,” she said.

Despite this, vitamin C deficiency is easy to treat – several of the patients were cured with a simple round of Vitamin C tablets.

Could it be more widespread?

So could you be at risk?

Prof Gunton says the disease could be more widespread than most people would think.

Humans can’t produce Vitamin C so we have to eat it – foods such as oranges, strawberries, red and green peppers including capsicums, broccoli, kiwi fruit and grapefruit are all high in it. It’s just that most people over-cook them and kill it – or don’t eat it at all.

Of course, if you have any of the symptoms above, that doesn’t mean you have it.

But with most Australians failing to eat the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables daily, it’s worth investigating. Food for thought?

Lauren is a journalist for, agedcare101 and The Donaldson Sisters. Growing up in a big family in small town communities, she has always had a love for the written word, joining her local library at the age of six months. With over eight years' experience in writing and editing, she is a keen follower of news and current affairs with a nose for a good story.

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