Tackling vitamin D deficiency in Europe
It happened by accident that I discovered the problem of the widespread vitamin D deficiency in Europe. However, after recognising the alarming data, I did not hesitate to step up as a politician and as a member of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee to help the scientific, medical and patient communities in their efforts to put the issue on the European political agenda.
To set the scene, we only have to list the shocking new facts connected to the so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’, which was discovered in the 1930s. One of them is that at least 50 per cent of the European population is deficient in vitamin D.
If we look at the consequences of the lack of vitamin D, we may tell from our childhood that it is one of the greatest risks for bone diseases and muscle weakness. However, it is also a key preventive factor in the overall human health. As it is showed by a growing body of exciting new science, vitamin D deficiency is linked to a wide range of diseases, such as osteoporosis, heart diseases, many forms of cancer (e.g. colorectal and prostate), diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis and the list goes on.
Finally, from an economic point of view, as the recent Grant study shows, sufficient provision of the population with vitamin D would lower the health costs in 17 European countries by an unbelievable 187 billion Euros – with only 10 billion of additional costs.
It is common sense that prevention is always cheaper than the treatment itself. It flows from the above, that addressing vitamin D deficiency is a clear healthcare obligation. Actually, any health issue in which 50 per cent of the European population is concerned poses a clear opportunity for health policy. So what should be done?
It is obvious that education and awareness-raising on vitamin D are the most important tasks, not only among the population but also among healthcare-professionals and policy-makers in order to spread the knowledge. The role of vitamin D is still an unknown quantity to many, including the most vulnerable in society, the elderly, young children and pregnant women.
In fact, the body itself produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun, so a daily dose of 10 to 20 minutes could already help cut deficiency. Cheese, butter, margarine, fortified milk, fatty fish and fortified cereals are food sources of vitamin D. Linked to our modern lifestyles, however, Europeans expose less than five per cent of their skin to the sun; we do not pay enough attention to our nutrition, not to mention those Eastern European countries, where fish consumption is traditionally less than half the EU average – just to list a few reasons behind the widespread vitamin D deficiency in Europe.
Consumers should be enabled to make the right choice during their everyday life, thus making the first little steps in prevention. As regards nutritional policy, with some changes in regulations concerning food additions, vitamin D supplements and enriched food products would be strategical options and would offer cheap and safe alternatives to sunshine and fatty fish. There is good evidence that the numbers of bone fractures can be easily decreased by more than 20 per cent, by the simple supplementation of 800-1000 units of vitamin D per day. Of course, there is a need to invest in further research in order to model European food and vitamin D intake data and to determine the safe and effective intake of vitamin D.
Now we have a promising opportunity to avoid serious and expensive problems by safe and relatively cheap measures. For me, as a politician this was the most important message to be taken; hence I was delighted to host an international conference on vitamin D in the European Parliament in March this year. It was an unique opportunity to bring together representatives of the scientific, medical and patient communities, as well as policy-makers, to highlight these facts. We all agreed that there is an urgent need for policy-makers to act so as to bring and keep the topic higher on the European political agenda.