Women in hijabs 'need sunlight or risk illness'

Evening Standad 

The traditional hijab could be preventing some women from receiving enough sunlight on their skin

Muslim women who wear the hijab are at risk of serious illness because they do not get enough sun, doctors have warned.

They said an alarming number of women who cover their skin are suffering bone deficiencies over a lack of vitamin D.

Most of the body's vitamin D - which prevents rickets - is obtained through sunlight acting on the skin. Only a little comes from food.

Doctors told a London conference today that people with dark pigment are at risk because of "cultural reasons" and because they are less efficient at producing the vitamin.

The bone disorder rickets has now broken out in young Muslim children as babies are not getting enough calcium from mothers' breast milk.

The National Health Service is launching a campaign aimed at Muslim women, particularly Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Somalis, to encourage them to increase their vitamin D intake.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "For ethnic groups there is an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency as people with dark and pigmented skin are less efficient at making vitamin D in their skin.

"They need to spend longer outside to make similar amounts and those who wear concealing clothing are unlikely to make enough.

"Studies have shown low vitamin D levels in Asian women in the UK - particularly among those who cover most of their skin for cultural reasons."

The problem first came to light in Bradford, which has one of the highest Muslim populations in Britain.

Community leaders and doctors will today warn a conference in Acton that women in London are also in danger of passing vitamin deficiencies to their children. The Department of Health project - called Healthy Start - comes after studies show Muslim children lack vitamin D.

Officials are concerned it is driven by mothers who are not getting enough of the vitamin because they are fully covered by the hijab.

This is because vitamin D helps calcium get absorbed from the intestine and pushes the calcium into the bone.

The Government is calling on community leaders to warn Muslims they need more sunlight and better diets. Pregnant women are also advised to take vitamin D supplements and folic acid.

A spokeswoman said: "People may be at risk if they are South Asian, African or African-Caribbean and have low exposure to sunlight, for example if they observe Hijab or do not spend much time outside."

She said a poor diet or restricted diet such as veganism, also posed dangers. "Breastfeeding is recommended for all babies, however a baby may be at risk if breast-fed and the mother has a low vitamin D level herself."

Through the Healthy Start scheme qualifying families and pregnant women will be given vouchers for fruit and vegetables as well as milk and infant formula, plus free vitamin supplements.

One official said: "We are not interfering in a Muslim woman's right to wear the hijab, but we are stressing that we all need sunlight on our skins. If you have your head and skin covered, then you risk stopping these natural rays from topping up vital vitamins."

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