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‘People should not be dying of anorexia in 2020’: Survivor’s plea after five women die

PUBLISHED: 16:00 17 November 2020 | UPDATED: 16:48 17 November 2020

Hope Virgo, who has penned an open letter to Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock for better eating disorder following the deaths of five women, including Suffolk's Averil Hart (inset), from anorexia Pictures: SUPPLIED

Hope Virgo, who has penned an open letter to Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock for better eating disorder following the deaths of five women, including Suffolk's Averil Hart (inset), from anorexia Pictures: SUPPLIED

SUPPLIED BY FAMILY/HOPE VIRGO

Survivors of anorexia, MPs and NHS staff are demanding action from the Prime Minister and health secretary following the deaths of five women with eating disorders.

Averil Hart and her older sister Zoe Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILYAveril Hart and her older sister Zoe Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

Averil Hart, Madeleine Wallace, Emma Brown, Maria Jakes and Amanda Bowles all died within six years of each other while under NHS care in Cambridgeshire.

Averil, from Newton near Sudbury, died of anorexia aged 19, just weeks into her first term at the University of East Anglia.

Assistant Cambridgeshire coroner Sean Horstead found elements of her hospital care amounted to neglect and criticised seven failings by NHS organisations.

Systemic failures in treatment identified at the inquests of all five women prompted the coroner to draw up a prevention of future deaths report.

Averil Hart, who died in 2012, was one of five women who died of anorexia in Cambridgeshire Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILYAveril Hart, who died in 2012, was one of five women who died of anorexia in Cambridgeshire Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

He criticised the absence of a formally commissioned service for medical check-ups, and warned of a “level of ignorance” among medics about anorexia nervosa.

MORE: Death of anorexic student ‘avoidable’ and contributed to by neglect, coroner rules

Now an open letter has been sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock urging action over eating disorder care in England.

Penned by campaigner Hope Virgo, who developed anorexia aged 13, the letter calls for an end to a “postcode lottery” of treatment and demands rapid intervention to prevent more deaths.

“It’s appalling that in 2020, people are still dying of an eating disorder every single day,” Miss Virgo said.

Averil Hart with her father Nic Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILYAveril Hart with her father Nic Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

“If this was a physical illness, there would be an uproar. A whole cultural shift is needed within the NHS to realise you don’t have to die when you have an eating disorder, you can get to a place where you are either fully recovered or are managing recovery.”

MORE: Sister’s plea to take anorexia seriously after 19-year-old student’s death left ‘big hole’

Official figures suggest 18 people died of eating disorders in 2019, with 15 attributed to anorexia nervosa.

But experts and many charities say the data may not be a true reflection on mortality rates, with several studies linking the illness to suicide.

Scientific papers often declare anorexia as having the highest mortality rate of all mental disorders.

The open letter has been sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson Picture: Victoria Jones/PA WireThe open letter has been sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Agnes Ayton, a consultant psychiatrist in eating disorders and faculty chairwoman at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, also put her name to the letter.

She said Government support is desperately needed through a funding commitment and boosted training for health professionals, adding: “The truth is that people should not die of anorexia or any eating disorders. We cannot do this alone.”

Further signatories included the mayor of Liverpool, nine MPs, and other health professionals.

Earlier this month, NHS England announced the rollout of a service in 18 areas, offering contact within 48 hours and treatment in two weeks to young adults in the early stages of eating disorders.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also been sent the open letter, which calls for rapid action to address safety issues in anorexia treatment Picture: PA IMAGESHealth Secretary Matt Hancock has also been sent the open letter, which calls for rapid action to address safety issues in anorexia treatment Picture: PA IMAGES

But Miss Virgo said the coronavirus pandemic is having a huge impact on people’s historic relationships with food and warned that if eating disorders are not taken seriously and quickly, there could be grave consequences.

She added: “Even people who were fully recovered are starting to relapse. Covid is presenting so many additional problems, so if we don’t have safe support in place, what’s going to happen to all of those people?”

Andrew Radford of Beat, the eating disorder charity, said contacts to its helpline service have doubled during the Covid crisis.

“There is a real need for more investment into eating disorder services, with adequate staffing addressed as a priority and this is more important than ever (during Covid-19),” he said.

Beat charity chief executive Andrew Radford said calls to its helplines have doubled during the Covid-19 pandemic 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYBeat charity chief executive Andrew Radford said calls to its helplines have doubled during the Covid-19 pandemic Picture: ANTONY KELLY

“The Government cannot ignore the results of the inquests. We must see more investment in services and staffing, more efforts made to diagnose and treat eating disorders as quickly as possible, alongside more education for healthcare professionals, beginning in medical schools.”

MORE: What we learned from the inquest of Averil Hart

A Department of Health spokesman said: “Every death from an eating disorder is a tragedy and it is vital we learn lessons where things have gone wrong to ensure the NHS provides safe, high quality care, including by responding effectively to matters of concern raised by coroners.

“We are committed to ensuring those who need it can access support, and are expanding eating disorder services through the NHS Long Term Plan.

“Anybody with an eating disorder who needs support should contact their GP, local community eating disorder service, or mental health crisis service.”

Averil Hart, from Newton near Sudbury, died of anorexia in 2012 Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILYAveril Hart, from Newton near Sudbury, died of anorexia in 2012 Picture: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

• For eating disorder support, contact Beat.


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