Gaps in vitamin D knowledge a concern

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Nutrition researchers Dr Pamela von Hurst and Dr Cath Conlon.

A survey of more than 9000 New Zealand mothers has exposed gaps in knowledge about vitamin D's role in health that researchers describe as worrying.

And a parallel survey of health workers, including doctors and nurses, found high levels of knowledge but lack of understanding about what to tell patients.

Study authors Dr Cath Conlon and Dr Pamela von Hurst, from the Vitamin D Research Centre at the Albany campus, say the online survey of mothers drew responses nationwide and revealed about 90 per cent of respondents knew vitamin D comes from the sun and is needed for bone development.

But they are concerned that more than half of the Maori, Chinese and Indian mothers did not know that people with darker skins need more sun to absorb the same amount of vitamin D as fairer skinned people. The issue is increasingly relevant because of New Zealand's growing Asian migrant population, as well as in relation to the health of Maori and Pacific Island people, they say.

The survey also revealed many South Islanders are unaware they are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency than people in the North Island because of sun's lower intensity in the south.

Many respondents were "confused" about how to juggle skin cancer protection messages with vitamin D health information.

A parallel survey to assess vitamin D knowledge of health professionals, including doctors, nurses, Plunket nurses, dieticians and midwives, indicated a high level of awareness of vitamin D's importance but lack of clarity on what to advise patients. "They have good knowledge, but they are not confident about giving it," Dr Conlon says.

She says the survey underscores the need for "clear guidelines that health professionals can communicate – something the Ministry of Health is responsible for".

The response to the survey was "huge", the researchers say. They hoped to get 2000. "The overwhelming message is that they want the answers, Dr Conlon says. "Mothers want to know what they should be doing."

They release the preliminary findings today at a symposium on vitamin D hosted at the Albany campus.

Presentations include a new study by Dr von Hurst, which found young Asian women aged 20-29 have a higher risk of developing bone disease because they are vitamin D deficient. Guest speakers included  one of the world's leading researchers on vitamin D deficiency in infants and children, American paediatrician Professor Bruce Hollis.


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