Study finds risky vitamin deficiencies in refugees

Dangerous vitamin deficiencies may be missed in basic refugee health checks, the study found. EPA/HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK

Refugees arriving in Australia often suffer from dangerous levels of Vitamin B12 deficiency, which can be fatal if left untreated, a new study has found.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, concluded that refugees should be routinely checked for vitamin deficiencies upon arrival on Australian shores.

Humans get most of their Vitamin B12 from meat, dairy and eggs. Allowing levels to drop too low can cause fatigue, fetal development problems, depression and permanent nerve damage that leaves people unable to walk.

The new research found 16.5% of the 916 refugees studies had Vitamin B12 deficiency.

One third of participants from Iran and Bhutan, and one quarter of participants from Afghanistan had Vitamin B12 deficiency, the study found.

Refugees fleeing countries where food is scarce may not be used to including Vitamin B12-rich ingredients in their diet, said the study’s author, Dr Jill Benson, Director of the Health in Human Diversity Unit at the University of Adelaide.

“The problem is not always detected because while about half of arriving refugees undergo a routine health check, the rest go to see a GP in the community. But seeing newly arrived refugees is not a simple thing for an ordinary GP to do,” said Dr Benson.

Checking for vitamin deficiency is cheap, easy and can be treated with an injection and improved diet, but sometimes longer term changes are needed, she said.

“We expect that when people arrive their diet will be better but that’s not always the case. People are not necessarily used to including meat, dairy and eggs in their diet or they may be sending money back home,” she said.

Many GPs are not prepared for the kinds of health problems refugees may present with, said Dr Benson.

“In newly arrived refugees, we might see malaria or different sorts of worms, dental problems we don’t normally see, childhood problems we don’t normally see,” she said.

Each state in Australia has a separate refugee health protocol to guide clinicians on health checks but not all states included vitamin deficiency among the problems that should be checked routinely, said Dr Benson.

“It’s a matter of each state refugee health service advocating on this issue to their state government,” she said.

Associate Professor Jaya Earnest, a refugee health expert from Curtin University, said the new study highlighted the complex health needs of asylum seekers.

“Most refugees come from countries of protracted conflict or from refugee camps in transition countries that lack public health resources. The refugees are also nutritionally compromised,” she said.

“Before resettlement into Australia all humanitarian entrants are given a complete medical check but it is possible that specialised tests are not sought.”