Long ago, pirates, explorers, and sailors were plagued by a mysterious disease that caused them to suffer a slow and painful death. Now that disease is making a comeback, in the places you’d least expect.
We now know that the condition, called scurvy, is caused by a lack of vitamin C, which is mainly found in fruits and vegetables.
Early symptoms of the disease include fatigue, nausea, and joint pain, but later on it can cause swollen gums, severe bruising, damaged hair, and bleeding into the joints and muscles. In children, it can affect the bones, causing stunted growth. In the worst cases, scurvy can lead to death from complications like internal hemorrhaging.
Luckily, scurvy is incredibly easy to treat – you just increase the amount of vitamin C in your diet.
While scurvy was first documented way back in 1550 BCE by the ancient Egyptians, it is perhaps most famous for the effects it had on 18th-century mariners. Long periods at sea meant a lack of fresh fruit and veg to eat, so the disease ravaged pirates, and severely affected the British Royal Navy, whose sailors were much more likely to be killed by diseases like scurvy than through combat. In fact, it’s thought that scurvy was the biggest cause of deaths at sea – overtaking violent storms, shipwrecks, battle, and other diseases put together.
The disease has also impacted various explorers, such as those on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition to Antarctica, the one prior to the ill-fated 1910 expedition that led to his death. Although Scott was opposed to the slaughter of penguins, his scurvy-ridden team discovered that eating fresh seal and penguin meat could massively improve their symptoms.
Today, scurvy is seen mainly in the developing world, where malnutrition is most common. But scurvy seems to be experiencing a resurgence in countries where people should have access to plenty of vitamin C-rich foods.
This occurrence is explored in a new documentary called Vitamania. Medical doctor Eric Churchill, who practices in Springfield, Massachusetts, and features in the new film, explained that his team alone have diagnosed between 20 and 30 new cases of scurvy over the past six years – a surprisingly high number. But why?
"Many people who have difficulty affording food tend to go for food that is high fat, high calorie, and very filling," Churchill says 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."
Therefore, those of lower socio-economic status within wealthy countries are the ones being affected by this nutritional disease, something that needs to be addressed.
"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," Churchill said.
Various species in the animal kingdom – like lemurs and lorises – can produce their own vitamin C, but unfortunately, we can’t, so our diet is incredibly important. And it’s not just a lack of fruit and veg that can lead to scurvy – the way we cook them can have an effect too. Overcooking vegetables can destroy the vital vitamins within them. Excellent sources of vitamin C include tomatoes, oranges, peppers, guavas, strawberries, and coriander.