The mystery of the wooden leg: vitamin C deficiency in East African prisons.Trop Doct 2005; 35(2):81-4TD
Vitamin C deficiency (scurvy) is an uncommon disease in modern times, and therefore easily misdiagnosed when it appears. While visiting prisoners in East Africa, health delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) encountered prisoners suffering from a hitherto undiagnosed 'mysterious' illness, consisting mainly of swollen and hard legs, that had not responded to various treatments given by the local health centre or hospital. The ICRC set out to investigate the nature of this disease and examined 133 prisoners with the suspected clinical symptoms described as 'wooden leg' syndrome in 10 different prisons. Serum ascorbic acid levels were measured and a food basket analysis done. The diagnosis of scurvy was confirmed. All patients responded to standard treatment with oral ascorbic acid. The clinical presentation of scurvy in these East African prisons seems to be somewhat different from the classic descriptions, but is in line with historic records of the disease. Treatment is easy and cheap, and response to treatment is quick. Scurvy remains a problem in prisons in Africa and clinicians working in prisons need to be aware of its presence and its presentations.