A two-year-old girl is in intensive care in Genoa after doctors found her starved as a result of the strict vegan diet followed by her parents.
Doctors at the Gaslini hospital found that the child, who has been identified only as “Chiara”, was underweight, slow in her movements and suffering from a severe vitamin B12 deficiency.
She had been brought in for a checkup by her anxious parents, who come from the town of Ventimiglia, on the border with France.
There were two similar cases in Italy in 2015, in Belluno and Florence, where infant malnutrition was attributed to the vegan or vegetarian diets followed by the children’s parents. Vegans eat only foods of vegetable origin and shun meat, fish and dairy products.
Chiara had been breastfed for a long time by her mother and had then been moved on to a vegan diet like her parents.
Doctors said that a B12 deficiency in a small child could lead to serious neurological problems and it was too early to say whether Chiara would make a full recovery.
It was reported that the case has been referred to a juvenile court to assess the responsibility of the parents, who are believed to have adopted the diet for ethical reasons.
Alberto Ferrando, president of the regional paediatricians’ association, said that schoolchildren in Genoa could request a vegan diet at school provided that they produced evidence that they were under medical supervision.
“There are a lot of requests and they are increasing rapidly,” Dr Ferrando told the newspaper La Repubblica. “We don’t question the families’ choices, but we want to be sure that a paediatrician is overseeing the child’s diet, which can be very dangerous if not controlled.”
Experts say that children on vegan diets are likely to require dietary supplements including vitamin B12, zinc, iron and folic acid. There are believed to be as many as 700,000 vegans in Italy, with the number rising by around 10 per cent every year.
Its supporters argue that a properly balanced vegan diet can be perfectly safe for children and inappropriately fed omnivorous children are frequently at risk of obesity. Recent figures show that 21 per cent of Italian children are overweight and almost 10 per cent obese.
“Let’s remember that a vegan diet could be made up of carrots and Coca-Cola, but that’s obviously not balanced,” said Dr Roberta Bartocci, a vegan nutritionist.
“It’s a sign of ignorance to say that a vegan diet, even when it is well planned, is inadequate.”
In 2013 a French couple lost custody of their five-month-old boy because of malnutrition attributed to their vegan diet.