Liver disease – a potential bigger killer than heart disease

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IN NEXT YEAR: Liver disease will probably overtake heart disease to become the commonest cause of death in working age people

SHOULD we screen high risk patients for cirrhosis – long-term liver damage that can eventually lead to liver failure?

Recent guidelines are right to recommend screening high risk patients for cirrhosis, say liver specialists Mark Hudson at Freeman Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Nick Sheron at Southampton General Hospital.

They say liver disease will probably overtake heart disease to become the commonest cause of death in working age people in the next year or so, mainly because it develops without signs or symptoms and options to tackle alcohol and obesity – the commonest causes of liver disease – are limited.

Yet technologies to identify early liver disease exist, they say, and are supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

NICE recommends that men and women drinking alcohol at potentially harmful levels – more than 50 and 35 units a week, respectively – be offered a test (transient elastography) to exclude cirrhosis. This equates to about 2.25 million people in England and Wales.

They point out that few GPs currently have access to this test, “so it is not going to happen overnight.” However, because the lifetime cost of treating liver disease is between £50,000 and £120,000, “this approach is likely to be cost effective,” they write.  “We will need properly controlled trials, and these studies are in preparation,” they say. “However, the burden of liver disease is such that doctors cannot simply sit in their ivory towers waiting for patients with liver disease to come and find them.”

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