Centuries ago, during the time when pirates reigned at sea and explorers discovered unknown lands, a mysterious disease existed, one that caused a slow and painful death. Now, that same disease in making a comeback, but rather than surfacing in far-off lands, it has appeared in places closer to home.
Onset symptoms of scurvy include fatigue, nausea, and joint pain, but as the disease progresses, it can cause swollen gums, severe bruising, damaged hair, and bleeding into the joints and muscles. In children, the symptoms can affect the bones, causing stunted growth. In severe cases, scurvy can lead to death from complications such as internal hemorrhaging. Fortunately, scurvy is easy to treat: just increase your vitamin C intake.
Scurvy can be traced all the way back to 1550 BCE among the ancient Egyptians; however, it is most famous for the impact it had on 18th-century mariners. Extended periods of time at sea, sometimes with no end in sight, meant a shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables on the ship. The disease would inevitably destroy pirates and severely affect the British Royal Navy, whose sailors were more likely to die from the disease than by combat. In fact, scurvy is thought to be the most common cause of deaths at sea, surpassing deaths from fatal storms, shipwrecks, battles, and other diseases combined.
The disease has also taken a toll on various explorers, such as those part of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition to Antarctica. Though Scott disagreed with the slaughter of penguins, he and his team ultimately resorted to consuming fresh seal and penguin meat to avoid the symptoms of scurvy.
Today, scurvy is found mainly in developing countries, where malnutrition is most common. Yet, scurvy has also been found in countries where people are likely to have more access to vitamin C-rich foods.
These occurrences have been more closely explored in the documentary Vitamania. Erich Churchill, a medical doctor who practices in Springfield, Massachusetts, and is featured in the film, explained that his team is responsible for the diagnosis of 20-30 cases of scurvy within the past six years.
“Many people who have difficulty affording food tend to go for food that is high-fat, high-calorie, and very filling,” Churchill said in the documentary. “If you have a limited food budget, those are the meals that will fill you up and will satisfy you more than eating fruits and vegetables.”
Consequently, those of lower socioeconomic status in wealthy countries are deeply affected and at high risk of suffering from this disease.
“Scurvy stands out in our minds as something that is so basic and easy to avoid, and yet these people have ended up falling victim to an illness that simply should not exist in a developed country,” said Churchill.
While eating vegetables and fruits can greatly lower the risk of scurvy, it is important to note that the way we cook them can also have an important effect, which many overlook. Overcooking vegetables can destroy the vital vitamins within them. Great sources of vitamin C include tomatoes, oranges, peppers, guavas, strawberries, and coriander.