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Many women and children in India are reportedly vitamin D deficient. If it were limited to urban areas, it might have been attributed to too much time spent in the airconditioned indoors — and the resultant lack of exposure to sunlight. The sun is the best source of vitamin D. Odd therefore, that rural India too should be deficient.
A 1998 report published by the World Health Organisation and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation said India's geographical location ensured that its population got enough sunlight to be able to physiologically produce vitamin D from its precursor, 7-dehydrocholesterol, which is present in the layer of fat immediately underlying the skin.
This is a significant advantage, because vitamin D is a particularly difficult nutrient to obtain in a regular diet. The only edible substance which contains the vitamin is fish liver oil.
Dr Surender Kumar, chairman of the department of endocrinology and metabolic diseases at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, said, "There is a misconception that dairy products contain vitamin D. There are only two known sources of vitamin D, fish liver oil and sunlight. It helps to expose the whole body to the sun for about half an hour every day until the skin is mildly red. We thought earlier that this was important only for bone health, but we now know that cardiovascular health, immunity and even cancer prevention could be among its roles."
Figures for the incidence of vitamin D deficiency are fuzzy and incomplete, and there is no consolidated national estimate. Whatever is known is, however, alarming enough for numerous articles in medical journals over the last few years to call for a national programme — similar to the interventions for deficiencies of vitamin A and iodine — to tackle the problem.
Some doctors estimate that if a blood vitamin D level of 30 nanogram per decilitre is taken to be the deficiency cut-off, up to 90% Indians could be deficient.
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