A leading doctor has warned that children in the UK are suffering from the crippling bone disease rickets as parents cover them in sunscreen and limit their time outside in the sunshine.
The childhood disease, caused by low levels of vitamin D generated in the body from sunshine and certain foods, had died out around 80 years ago but is now making a comeback, according to experts.
Cases of rickets in children have occurred in northern England and Scotland where there are fewer months of the year with sufficient sunshine to obtain enough vitamin D but now doctors are seeing it on the South coast as well.
It is thought extensive use of sunscreen, children spending more time indoors rather than playing outside and a poor diet are to blame.
A consultant orthopedic surgeon at Southampton General Hospital and professor at the University of Southampton, said: "The return of rickets in northern parts of the UK came as a surprise despite the colder climate and lower levels of sunshine in the north, but what has developed in Southampton is quite astonishing."
Children from all backgrounds are being affected now and the disease is not limited to the poor as it was in Victorian times.
He added: "In my 22 years at Southampton General Hospital, this is a completely new occurrence in the south that has evolved over the last 12 to 24 months and we are seeing cases across the board, from areas of deprivation up to the middle classes, so there is a real need to get national attention focused on the dangers this presents."
The professor and his colleague have checked over 200 children for bone problems and more than 20 per cent of them have significant deficiencies.
"A lot of the children we've seen have got low vitamin D and require treatment," he said. "This is almost certainly a combination of the modern lifestyle, which involves a lack of exposure to sunlight, but also covering up in sunshine, and we're seeing cases that are very reminiscent of 17th century England."
He added: "We are facing the daunting prospect of an area like Southampton, where it is high income, middle class and leafy in its surroundings, seeing increasing numbers of children with rickets, which would have been inconceivable only a year or so ago."
This crippling bone disease can lead to deformities like bowed legs as well stunted growth and general ill-health in childhood. Although white children are also being diagnosed with rickets, those from Asian and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are at greater risk because their darker skin means that they need more sun exposure to synthesize the same amount of vitamin D.
During the winter months when there is less sunlight, it is diffcult to obtain sufficient amounts of this vitamin from sunshine alone. Vitamin D is also found in oily fish and eggs, but to correct a deficiency, vitamin D supplements may be required.