By Mark Howarth
A NEW government public health campaign telling Scots why they should take vitamin D has omitted to mention that it may help protect against viral infections.
Fewer than one in three people follows NHS advice to take a daily supplement during the winter when more than half the population is badly deficient.
A Food Standards Scotland (FSS) survey discovered that more would take the sunshine vitamin if only they knew of its health benefits.
But now its new publicity campaign has launched without the key message that it may help boost immunity against respiratory infections, a category that includes flu and Covid-19.
Last night, critics accused FSS of “gross negligence”.
Dr Richard Quinton – a consultant endocrinologist treating Covid-19 patients with vitamin D at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary – said: “Government agencies should be making the public aware of current scientific knowledge and erring on the side of caution when giving public health advice to the population.
“We don’t know for sure whether taking vitamin D supplements will help lower Covid-19 mortality but we do know there’s no downside to taking them.
“So if Scots take supplements and it turns out there is no benefit against Covid-19, the cost is next to zero.
“But if Scots don’t take supplements and it turns out it is effective against Covid-19, the cost is potentially thousands of lives.
“In these circumstances, it is surely right to inform the public that there may be a benefit.”
Vitamin D is the fuel for the T-cells that form a key part of the immune system.
It also regulates the body’s inflammatory response to infection, helping to prevent the so-called ‘cytokine storm’ which causes damage to major organs and is responsible for the majority of Covid-19 deaths.
Vitamin D is found in few foods and the body replenishes its stocks through the action of sunlight on the skin, which means Scots are more at risk from deficiency, particularly in the winter.
Low levels are rife in care home residents, the obese and those with darker skin, who have all been hit hardest by the pandemic.
A major review of evidence last year showed that daily vitamin D supplements up to 2.5 times the strength recommended by the NHS cut the odds of respiratory infection by 30 per cent.
And the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) – which provides guidance to all UK governments – changed its advice in December to reflect these findings, stating that vitamin D “may provide some additional benefit in reducing the risk of acute respiratory tract infections”.
However, there was no mention of this in FSS’s new public health campaign, which launched on January 8th.
Its guide – a Question & Answer with senior Public Health Nutrition Advisor Alana McDonald – states: “The advice to consider taking vitamin D supplements is based on recommendations from SACN who provide independent advice to government based on scientific evidence.
“The advice to take vitamin D supplements is specifically about protecting bone and muscle health. At the time of writing (January 2021), there is currently not enough evidence to support taking vitamin D supplements to prevent or treat other conditions such as COVID-19.”
Recently-retired Edinburgh GP Helga Rhein, of the campaign group Scots Need Vitamin D, said: “Scotland’s chronic population-wide vitamin D deficiency – which peaks annually in the winter – has been played down for years and this is precisely why it persists.
“Food Standards Scotland’s own research shows that if you tell people the truth in clear terms then they are more likely to follow health advice.
“So why is it only telling Scotland half the story and choosing to keep the most important part a secret?
“To not tell the public that vitamin D supplements may reduce the risk of respiratory infection during a pandemic of a respiratory infection is not only crazy but grossly negligent. Vitamin D is extremely safe and there are no down sides to having optimal levels of a vital nutrient.”
An FSS spokesman said: “We are aware that SACN recently reviewed the evidence and advised that a daily intake of 10 microgrammes of vitamin D may also have some benefit in reducing the risk of acute respiratory tract infections (ARTI).
“However, no certainty that vitamin D reduces the risk of ARTI can be provided at this time, only that it ‘may’ have some benefit.
“Therefore the evidence is not yet sufficient to draw firm conclusions.”
Asked why it is failing to pass on SACN’s advice about respiratory infections, she replied:
“This issue is being kept under review.”