It is troubling that the number of premature deaths from liver disease rose from 9,218 in 2019 to 10,127 in 2020. At a national level, the Office for Health Improvement is seeking to address this through interventions to reduce alcohol consumption.
Around 90 per cent of liver deaths are related to lifestyle and unhealthy environments with the vast majority of these being alcohol related, and it is these diseases that are responsible for mortality from liver disease increasing four-fold over the last few decades. That is why it is so important that this year’s Love Your Liver Awareness Month focused on the importance of lifestyle change to prevent liver disease.
The campaign specifically addresses the work of Integrated Care Systems (ICSs), and it is their responsibility to commission and implement pathways for conditions like liver disease.
You may be interested to know that the Health and Care Bill, currently progressing through Parliament, will place duties on Integrated Care Boards to commission a range of health services for their local area.
Alongside this work, NHS England is establishing liver networks in England, which will enable quicker access to specialised liver services, as well as providing additional clinical advice on disease prevention and referral practice.
In March 2020, guidance on liver disease was published, which is designed to promote awareness among clinicians, supporting them to increase understanding with their patients, and to help them to be proactive identifying risk factors.
However, it has been deeply concerning to read media reports about cases of hepatitis occurring in young children. I would stress that such cases are extremely rare, and that none of the confirmed cases so far have received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Please be assured that the UK Health Security Agency is investigating potential causes, including a strain of adenovirus called A41 that has been detected in three-quarters of children with hepatitis who were tested.
You can find out more information about symptoms here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/increase-in-hepatitis-liver-inflammation-cases-in-children-under-investigation
I warmly welcome that progress is being made towards the elimination of hepatitis C. Over 57,000 people have benefitted from new drugs which cure hepatitis C being made available on the NHS over the last few years. Up to 95 per cent of those with a reported response to the treatment have been cured. Furthermore, death registrations for hepatitis C-related end-stage liver disease and cancer fell by 20 per cent between 2015 and 2018, exceeding the 10 per cent reduction by 2020 World Health Organization target.
The Government is currently investing in a number of programmes to tackle alcohol misuse through bodies like NHS England and Improvement. This includes £80 million invested in substance misuse treatment in 2021/22, and a £27 million four-year programme to establish alcohol harm teams in hospitals to provide specialist alcohol interventions where needed.
Alcohol can cause many harms, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, so increasing support for people misusing alcohol will also help to reduce instances of liver disease.
Obesity is a leading cause of liver disease, and I welcome the Prime Minister's focus on this issue, through the Obesity Strategy as well as the LTP. These plans seek to tackle the problem of obesity head on. They contain new measures to improve wellbeing, underpinned by a focus on prevention rather than cure.
New measures proposed in the Obesity Strategy include restrictions on promotional deals and advertising, a new 'Better Health' campaign, and displaying calories on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out. The LTP will also help more than 2.5 million people to benefit from social prescribing, a personal health budget, and new support for managing their own health in partnership with patients’ groups and the voluntary sector.
Finally, I was pleased to learn about the British Liver Trust campaign launch on 26 April 2022. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this launch due to prior Parliamentary commitments. However, please be assured that I do recognise the importance of this issue. More can, and will, be done to tackle liver disease, and I will continue to monitor this issue closely.