The growing number of children suffering from vitamin D deficiencies could lead to a return of the 19th century disease rickets, health professionals have warned.
There has been a four-fold increase in the bone disease - which has been relatively uncommon in the UK since the 19th century - over the last 15 years, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said.
Poor intake of vitamin D is also resulting in higher incidences of diabetes, tuberculosis and multiple sclerosis, they said.
Health staff have called for widely available and low-cost supplements and the fortification of foods with vitamin D to stem the problem across the UK.
The RCPCH added that there needed to be a greater knowledge among healthcare professionals and better public awareness about vitamin D-related disease.
Professor Mitch Blair, officer for health promotion at the RCPCH, said: “We know vitamin D deficiency is a growing problem - and localised research reveals startlingly high levels of vitamin deficiency amongst certain groups including children.
“People can only get a fraction (10%) of their recommended daily amount of vitamin D through food and very little from sunlight.
“So getting out in the sun more or eating more oily fish isn’t going to solve the problem.
“Lack of vitamin D is related to a plethora of serious illnesses in children and adults that could be prevented through relatively simple steps such as taking supplements.”
The RCPCH said vitamin D deficiency was thought to affect a quarter of children across the UK.
The college has launched a campaign calling for high quality vitamin D supplements to be readily available at low-cost.
It said there should also be further investigation into the prospect of fortifying food with vitamin D.
Medics have called for further research into the link between vitamin D deficiency and bone disease and said there must be better surveillance to monitor the prevalence and incidence of vitamin D deficiency.
Professor Blair added: “The government’s Healthy Start programme provides vitamins free to low income families and ‘at risk’ groups.
“But these vitamins appear to be in short supply and uptake is low.
“Ensuring people are aware that they’re available is crucial - and there is some evidence to suggest we need to make these supplements more readily available for the wider population, which is already happening in some countries.
“And equally as important is making sure that all healthcare professionals can spot the signs of vitamin D deficiency in children; aches and pains, poor growth, muscle weakness and seizures - and make sure they get appropriately treated.”
Chief medical officer for England Dame Sally Davies said: “Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are best placed to give advice about the importance of getting enough vitamin D.
“That’s why earlier this year I and the other UK chief medical officers wrote to healthcare professionals urging them to offer advice about vitamin D to people at risk of deficiency,” she said.
“The Department of Health has also made sure vitamin D supplements are available free to pregnant women and young children from low income families through our Healthy Start scheme.
“Local NHS organisations must make sure those eligible for Healthy Start get the supplements they’re entitled to, and the department continues to work closely with the NHS on this.”
Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN said: “School nurses and health visitors are excellently placed to spread this awareness by working with families and teachers to improve the education around vitamin D deficiency. They can also identify symptoms of vitamin D deficiency before it develops into something more serious.
“This warning adds to the evidence that school nurses and health visitors make real life long improvements to a child’s health by supporting families from an early age with education and support.”