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scurvy

scurvy, deficiency disorder resulting from a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in the diet. Scurvy does not occur in most animals because they can synthesize their own vitamin C, but humans, other primates, guinea pigs, and a few other species lack an enzyme necessary for such synthesis and must obtain vitamin C through their diet. Vitamin C is widespread in plant tissues, with particularly high concentrations occurring in citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits); tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, and green peppers are also good sources of this vitamin.

Scurvy results in the weakening of capillaries, which causes hemorrhages into the tissues, bleeding of the gums, loosening of the teeth, anemia, and general debility. In infants there is also interference with bone development. Severe phases of the disorder can result in death. Scurvy is treated with large doses of vitamin C. Modern methods of transporting and preserving foods have made a diet rich in vitamin C available everywhere throughout the year, and even infants' diets include orange juice. Vitamin C is also available in tablet or syrup form.

Scurvy was a serious problem in the past, when fresh fruits and vegetables were not available during the winter in many parts of the world. It was especially common among sailors in the days when only nonperishable foods could be stocked aboard ship. More than half the crew of Vasco da Gama died from scurvy on his first trip (1497–99) around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1747 the Scottish naval surgeon James Lind treated scurvy-ridden sailors with lemons and oranges and obtained dramatic cures. In 1795 the British navy began to distribute regular rations of lime juice during long sea voyages (hence the name limeys for British sailors), a measure that was largely successful in preventing scurvy. It was probably the first disease to be definitely associated with a dietary deficiency.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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