This report from the Medical Advisory Secretariat (MAS) was intended to evaluate the clinical utility of vitamin D testing in average risk Canadians and in those with kidney disease. As a separate analysis, this report also includes a systematic literature review of the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in these two subgroups.
This evaluation did not set out to determine the serum vitamin D thresholds that might apply to non-bone health outcomes. For bone health outcomes, no high or moderate quality evidence could be found to support a target serum level above 50 nmol/L. Similarly, no high or moderate quality evidence could be found to support vitamin D’s effects in non-bone health outcomes, other than falls.
Vitamin D is a lipid soluble vitamin that acts as a hormone. It stimulates intestinal calcium absorption and is important in maintaining adequate phosphate levels for bone mineralization, bone growth, and remodelling. It’s also believed to be involved in the regulation of cell growth proliferation and apoptosis (programmed cell death), as well as modulation of the immune system and other functions. Alone or in combination with calcium, Vitamin D has also been shown to reduce the risk of fractures in elderly men (≥ 65 years), postmenopausal women, and the risk of falls in community-dwelling seniors. However, in a comprehensive systematic review, inconsistent results were found concerning the effects of vitamin D in conditions such as cancer, all-cause mortality, and cardiovascular disease. In fact, no high or moderate quality evidence could be found concerning the effects of vitamin D in such non-bone health outcomes. Given the uncertainties surrounding the effects of vitamin D in non-bone health related outcomes, it was decided that this evaluation should focus on falls and the effects of vitamin D in bone health and exclusively within average-risk individuals and patients with kidney disease.
Synthesis of vitamin D occurs naturally in the skin through exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from sunlight, but it can also be obtained from dietary sources including fortified foods, and supplements. Foods rich in vitamin D include fatty fish, egg yolks, fish liver oil, and some types of mushrooms. Since it is usually difficult to obtain sufficient vitamin D from non-fortified foods, either due to low content or infrequent use, most vitamin D is obtained from fortified foods, exposure to sunlight, and supplements.
Clinical Need: Condition and Target Population
Vitamin D deficiency may lead to rickets in infants and osteomalacia in adults. Factors believed to be associated with vitamin D deficiency include:
darker skin pigmentation,
living at higher latitudes,
malabsorption syndromes such as Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and
Patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD) are at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency due to either renal losses or decreased synthesis of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D.
Health Canada currently recommends that, until the daily recommended intakes (DRI) for vitamin D are updated, Canada’s Food Guide (Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide) should be followed with respect to vitamin D intake. Issued in 2007, the Guide recommends that Canadians consume two cups (500 ml) of fortified milk or fortified soy beverages daily in order to obtain a daily intake of 200 IU. In addition, men and women over the age of 50 should take 400 IU of vitamin D supplements daily. Additional recommendations were made for breastfed infants.
A Canadian survey evaluated the median vitamin D intake derived from diet alone (excluding supplements) among 35,000 Canadians, 10,900 of which were from Ontario. Among Ontarian males ages 9 and up, the median daily dietary vitamin D intake ranged between 196 IU and 272 IU per day. Among females, it varied from 152 IU to 196 IU per day. In boys and girls ages 1 to 3, the median daily dietary vitamin D intake was 248 IU, while among those 4 to 8 years it was 224 IU.
Vitamin D Testing
Two laboratory tests for vitamin D are available, 25-hydroxy vitamin D, referred to as 25(OH)D, and 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D. Vitamin D status is assessed by measuring the serum 25(OH)D levels, which can be assayed using radioimmunoassays, competitive protein-binding assays (CPBA), high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC), and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS). These may yield different results with inter-assay variation reaching up to 25% (at lower serum levels) and intra-assay variation reaching 10%.
The optimal serum concentration of vitamin D has not been established and it may change across different stages of life. Similarly, there is currently no consensus on target serum vitamin D levels. There does, however, appear to be a consensus on the definition of vitamin D deficiency at 25(OH)D < 25 nmol/l, which is based on the risk of diseases such as rickets and osteomalacia. Higher target serum levels have also been proposed based on subclinical endpoints such as parathyroid hormone (PTH). Therefore, in this report, two conservative target serum levels have been adopted, 25 nmol/L (based on the risk of rickets and osteomalacia), and 40 to 50 nmol/L (based on vitamin D’s interaction with PTH).
Volume & Cost
The volume of vitamin D tests done in Ontario has been increasing over the past 5 years with a steep increase of 169,000 tests in 2007 to more than 393,400 tests in 2008. The number of tests continues to rise with the projected number of tests for 2009 exceeding 731,000. According to the Ontario Schedule of Benefits, the billing cost of each test is $51.7 for 25(OH)D (L606, 100 LMS units, $0.517/unit) and $77.6 for 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D (L605, 150 LMS units, $0.517/unit). Province wide, the total annual cost of vitamin D testing has increased from approximately $1.7M in 2004 to over $21.0M in 2008. The projected annual cost for 2009 is approximately $38.8M.
The objective of this report is to evaluate the clinical utility of vitamin D testing in the average risk population and in those with kidney disease. As a separate analysis, the report also sought to evaluate the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Canada. The specific research questions addressed were thus:
What is the clinical utility of vitamin D testing in the average risk population and in subjects with kidney disease?
What is the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in the average risk population in Canada?
What is the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in patients with kidney disease in Canada?
Clinical utility was defined as the ability to improve bone health outcomes with the focus on the average risk population (excluding those with osteoporosis) and patients with kidney disease.
A literature search was performed on July 17th, 2009 using OVID MEDLINE, MEDLINE In-Process and Other Non-Indexed Citations, EMBASE, the Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), the Cochrane Library, and the International Agency for Health Technology Assessment (INAHTA) for studies published from January 1, 1998 until July 17th, 2009. Abstracts were reviewed by a single reviewer and, for those studies meeting the eligibility criteria, full-text articles were obtained. Reference lists were also examined for any additional relevant studies not identified through the search. Articles with unknown eligibility were reviewed with a second clinical epidemiologist, then a group of epidemiologists until consensus was established. The quality of evidence was assessed as high, moderate, low or very low according to GRADE methodology.
Observational studies that evaluated the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Canada in the population of interest were included based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria listed below. The baseline values were used in this report in the case of interventional studies that evaluated the effect of vitamin D intake on serum levels. Studies published in grey literature were included if no studies published in the peer-reviewed literature were identified for specific outcomes or subgroups.
Considering that vitamin D status may be affected by factors such as latitude, sun exposure, food fortification, among others, the search focused on prevalence studies published in Canada. In cases where no Canadian prevalence studies were identified, the decision was made to include studies from the United States, given the similar policies in vitamin D food fortification and recommended daily intake.
Studies published in English
Publications that reported the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Canada
Studies that included subjects from the general population or with kidney disease
Studies in children or adults
Studies published between January 1998 and July 17th 2009
Studies that included subjects defined according to a specific disease other than kidney disease
Letters, comments, and editorials
Studies that measured the serum vitamin D levels but did not report the percentage of subjects with serum levels below a given threshold
Outcomes of Interest
Prevalence of serum vitamin D less than 25 nmol/L
Prevalence of serum vitamin D less than 40 to 50 nmol/L
Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D was the metabolite used to assess vitamin D status. Results from adult and children studies were reported separately. Subgroup analyses according to factors that affect serum vitamin D levels (e.g., seasonal effects, skin pigmentation, and vitamin D intake) were reported if enough information was provided in the studies
Quality of Evidence
The quality of the prevalence studies was based on the method of subject recruitment and sampling, possibility of selection bias, and generalizability to the source population. The overall quality of the trials was examined according to the GRADE Working Group criteria.
Summary of Findings
Fourteen prevalence studies examining Canadian adults and children met the eligibility criteria. With the exception of one longitudinal study, the studies had a cross-sectional design. Two studies were conducted among Canadian adults with renal disease but none studied Canadian children with renal disease (though three such US studies were included). No systematic reviews or health technology assessments that evaluated the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Canada were identified. Two studies were published in grey literature, consisting of a Canadian survey designed to measure serum vitamin D levels and a study in infants presented as an abstract at a conference. Also included were the results of vitamin D tests performed in community laboratories in Ontario between October 2008 and September 2009 (provided by the Ontario Association of Medical Laboratories).
Different threshold levels were used in the studies, thus we reported the percentage of subjects with serum levels of between 25 and 30 nmol/L and between 37.5 and 50 nmol/L. Some studies stratified the results according to factors affecting vitamin D status and two used multivariate models to investigate the effects of these characteristics (including age, season, BMI, vitamin D intake, skin pigmentation, and season) on serum 25(OH)D levels. It’s unclear, however, if these studies were adequately powered for these subgroup analyses.
Study participants generally consisted of healthy, community-dwelling subjects and most excluded individuals with conditions or medications that alter vitamin D or bone metabolism, such as kidney or liver disease. Although the studies were conducted in different parts of Canada, fewer were performed in Northern latitudes, i.e. above 53°N, which is equivalent to the city of Edmonton.
Serum vitamin D levels of < 25 to 30 nmol/L were observed in 0% to 25.5% of the subjects included in five studies; the weighted average was 3.8% (95% CI: 3.0, 4.6). The preliminary results of the Canadian survey showed that approximately 5% of the subjects had serum levels below 29.5 nmol/L. The results of over 600,000 vitamin D tests performed in Ontarian community laboratories between October 2008 and September 2009 showed that 2.6% of adults (> 18 years) had serum levels < 25 nmol/L.
The prevalence of serum vitamin D levels below 37.5-50 nmol/L reported among studies varied widely, ranging from 8% to 73.6% with a weighted average of 22.5%. The preliminary results of the CHMS survey showed that between 10% and 25% of subjects had serum levels below 37 to 48 nmol/L. The results of the vitamin D tests performed in community laboratories showed that 10% to 25% of the individuals had serum levels between 39 and 50 nmol/L.
In an attempt to explain this inter-study variation, the study results were stratified according to factors affecting serum vitamin D levels, as summarized below. These results should be interpreted with caution as none were adjusted for other potential confounders. Adequately powered multivariate analyses would be necessary to determine the contribution of risk factors to lower serum 25(OH)D levels.
Three adult studies evaluating serum vitamin D levels in different seasons observed a trend towards a higher prevalence of serum levels < 37.5 to 50 nmol/L during the winter and spring months, specifically 21% to 39%, compared to 8% to 14% in the summer. The weighted average was 23.6% over the winter/spring months and 9.6% over summer. The difference between the seasons was not statistically significant in one study and not reported in the other two studies.
Four studies observed a trend toward a higher prevalence of serum vitamin D levels < 37.5 to 50 nmol/L in subjects with darker skin pigmentation compared to those with lighter skin pigmentation, with weighted averages of 46.8% among adults with darker skin colour and 15.9% among those with fairer skin.
Vitamin D intake and serum levels
Four adult studies evaluated serum vitamin D levels according to vitamin D intake and showed an overall trend toward a lower prevalence of serum levels < 37.5 to 50 nmol/L with higher levels of vitamin D intake. One study observed a dose-response relationship between higher vitamin D intake from supplements, diet (milk), and sun exposure (results not adjusted for other variables). It was observed that subjects taking 50 to 400 IU or > 400 IU of vitamin D per day had a 6% and 3% prevalence of serum vitamin D level < 40 nmol/L, respectively, versus 29% in subjects not on vitamin D supplementation. Similarly, among subjects drinking one or two glasses of milk per day, the prevalence of serum vitamin D levels < 40 nmol/L was found to be 15%, versus 6% in those who drink more than two glasses of milk per day and 21% among those who do not drink milk. On the other hand, one study observed little variation in serum vitamin D levels during winter according to milk intake, with the proportion of subjects exhibiting vitamin D levels of < 40 nmol/L being 21% among those drinking 0-2 glasses per day, 26% among those drinking > 2 glasses, and 20% among non-milk drinkers.
The overall quality of evidence for the studies conducted among adults was deemed to be low, although it was considered moderate for the subgroups of skin pigmentation and seasonal variation.
Newborn, Children and Adolescents
Five Canadian studies evaluated serum vitamin D levels in newborns, children, and adolescents. In four of these, it was found that between 0 and 36% of children exhibited deficiency across age groups with a weighted average of 6.4%. The results of over 28,000 vitamin D tests performed in children 0 to 18 years old in Ontario laboratories (Oct. 2008 to Sept. 2009) showed that 4.4% had serum levels of < 25 nmol/L.
According to two studies, 32% of infants 24 to 30 months old and 35.3% of newborns had serum vitamin D levels of < 50 nmol/L. Two studies of children 2 to 16 years old reported that 24.5% and 34% had serum vitamin D levels below 37.5 to 40 nmol/L. In both studies, older children exhibited a higher prevalence than younger children, with weighted averages 34.4% and 10.3%, respectively. The overall weighted average of the prevalence of serum vitamin D levels < 37.5 to 50 nmol/L among pediatric studies was 25.8%. The preliminary results of the Canadian survey showed that between 10% and 25% of subjects between 6 and 11 years (N= 435) had serum levels below 50 nmol/L, while for those 12 to 19 years, 25% to 50% exhibited serum vitamin D levels below 50 nmol/L.
The effects of season, skin pigmentation, and vitamin D intake were not explored in Canadian pediatric studies. A Canadian surveillance study did, however, report 104 confirmed cases1 (2.9 cases per 100,000 children) of vitamin D-deficient rickets among Canadian children age 1 to 18 between 2002 and 2004, 57 (55%) of which from Ontario. The highest incidence occurred among children living in the North, i.e., the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. In 92 (89%) cases, skin pigmentation was categorized as intermediate to dark, 98 (94%) had been breastfed, and 25 (24%) were offspring of immigrants to Canada. There were no cases of rickets in children receiving ≥ 400 IU VD supplementation/day.
Overall, the quality of evidence of the studies of children was considered very low.
Two studies evaluated serum vitamin D levels in Canadian adults with kidney disease. The first included 128 patients with chronic kidney disease stages 3 to 5, 38% of which had serum vitamin D levels of < 37.5 nmol/L (measured between April and July). This is higher than what was reported in Canadian studies of the general population during the summer months (i.e. between 8% and 14%). In the second, which examined 419 subjects who had received a renal transplantation (mean time since transplantation: 7.2 ± 6.4 years), the prevalence of serum vitamin D levels < 40 nmol/L was 27.3%. The authors concluded that the prevalence observed in the study population was similar to what is expected in the general population.
No studies evaluating serum vitamin D levels in Canadian pediatric patients with kidney disease could be identified, although three such US studies among children with chronic kidney disease stages 1 to 5 were. The mean age varied between 10.7 and 12.5 years in two studies but was not reported in the third. Across all three studies, the prevalence of serum vitamin D levels below the range of 37.5 to 50 nmol/L varied between 21% and 39%, which is not considerably different from what was observed in studies of healthy Canadian children (24% to 35%).
Overall, the quality of evidence in adults and children with kidney disease was considered very low.
Clinical Utility of Vitamin D Testing
A high quality comprehensive systematic review published in August 2007 evaluated the association between serum vitamin D levels and different bone health outcomes in different age groups. A total of 72 studies were included. The authors observed that there was a trend towards improvement in some bone health outcomes with higher serum vitamin D levels. Nevertheless, precise thresholds for improved bone health outcomes could not be defined across age groups. Further, no new studies on the association were identified during an updated systematic review on vitamin D published in July 2009.
With regards to non-bone health outcomes, there is no high or even moderate quality evidence that supports the effectiveness of vitamin D in outcomes such as cancer, cardiovascular outcomes, and all-cause mortality. Even if there is any residual uncertainty, there is no evidence that testing vitamin D levels encourages adherence to Health Canada’s guidelines for vitamin D intake. A normal serum vitamin D threshold required to prevent non-bone health related conditions cannot be resolved until a causal effect or correlation has been demonstrated between vitamin D levels and these conditions. This is as an ongoing research issue around which there is currently too much uncertainty to base any conclusions that would support routine vitamin D testing.
For patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD), there is again no high or moderate quality evidence supporting improved outcomes through the use of calcitriol or vitamin D analogs. In the absence of such data, the authors of the guidelines for CKD patients consider it best practice to maintain serum calcium and phosphate at normal levels, while supplementation with active vitamin D should be considered if serum PTH levels are elevated. As previously stated, the authors of guidelines for CKD patients believe that there is not enough evidence to support routine vitamin D [25(OH)D] testing. According to what is stated in the guidelines, decisions regarding the commencement or discontinuation of treatment with calcitriol or vitamin D analogs should be based on serum PTH, calcium, and phosphate levels.
Limitations associated with the evidence of vitamin D testing include ambiguities in the definition of an ‘adequate threshold level’ and both inter- and intra- assay variability. The MAS considers both the lack of a consensus on the target serum vitamin D levels and assay limitations directly affect and undermine the clinical utility of testing. The evidence supporting the clinical utility of vitamin D testing is thus considered to be of very low quality.
Daily vitamin D intake, either through diet or supplementation, should follow Health Canada’s recommendations for healthy individuals of different age groups. For those with medical conditions such as renal disease, liver disease, and malabsorption syndromes, and for those taking medications that may affect vitamin D absorption/metabolism, physician guidance should be followed with respect to both vitamin D testing and supplementation.
Studies indicate that vitamin D, alone or in combination with calcium, may decrease the risk of fractures and falls among older adults.
There is no high or moderate quality evidence to support the effectiveness of vitamin D in other outcomes such as cancer, cardiovascular outcomes, and all-cause mortality.
Studies suggest that the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Canadian adults and children is relatively low (approximately 5%), and between 10% and 25% have serum levels below 40 to 50 nmol/L (based on very low to low grade evidence).
Given the limitations associated with serum vitamin D measurement, ambiguities in the definition of a ‘target serum level’, and the availability of clear guidelines on vitamin D supplementation from Health Canada, vitamin D testing is not warranted for the average risk population.
Health Canada has issued recommendations regarding the adequate daily intake of vitamin D, but current studies suggest that the mean dietary intake is below these recommendations. Accordingly, Health Canada’s guidelines and recommendations should be promoted.
Based on a moderate level of evidence, individuals with darker skin pigmentation appear to have a higher risk of low serum vitamin D levels than those with lighter skin pigmentation and therefore may need to be specially targeted with respect to optimum vitamin D intake. The cause-effect of this association is currently unclear.
Individuals with medical conditions such as renal and liver disease, osteoporosis, and malabsorption syndromes, as well as those taking medications that may affect vitamin D absorption/metabolism, should follow their physician’s guidance concerning both vitamin D testing and supplementation.