Hidden liver problem could hit one in seven

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am


Up to a million Hong Kong people may suffer from fatty liver disease and 40,000 of them could have serious complications, a Chinese University study estimates.

Fatty liver is caused by the accumulation of fat in liver cells. The presence of the fat may cause inflammation and fibrosis, deadly complications of cirrhosis and liver cancer if the condition deteriorates.

From 2008 to last year, the Centre for Liver Health at the university checked 992 people randomly sampled from the population. It found that 264 people, or 28.6 per cent of the total, suffered from fatty liver.

And it is not only alcoholics, the group most commonly associated with liver disease, who are affected. Excluding heavy drinkers, the percentage remained high, at 27.3 per cent.

Of those found with fatty livers, almost 4 per cent had developed cirrhosis or fibrosis, an abnormal build-up of scar tissue. Based on previous medical studies, at least 20 per cent of this severely afflicted group may eventually die from liver cancer or cirrhotic complications.

Based on the study's findings, the centre estimates that a million adults could have fatty livers. More than 40,000 of them may develop serious complications, but may be unaware of their condition.

Although fatty liver has been associated with western society, it is increasingly a problem in Asia. The study found the prevalence of fatty liver in Hong Kong is as high as in Europe and the United States, where 20 per cent to 40 per cent of the population suffers from the disease. A study in Shanghai seven years ago found the city's prevalence rate to be 16 per cent.

'Asians are leading a westernised life. They drink soft drinks and walk less,' Vincent Wong Wai-sun, an associate professor at the university's department of medicine, explained.

Although there is a lack of previous studies to show how much the problem has worsened in Hong Kong, the situation overseas can serve as a reference.

A decade ago in the US, fatty liver was listed as the 10th most common reason for liver transplants. Today it ranks third.

Despite its potentially deadly consequences, fatty liver is a disease that shows few or no symptoms and can be detected only by tests.

Those diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension and central obesity - men and women whose waistlines exceed 90cm and 80cm, respectively - had a higher chance of developing fatty liver, Wong said. Others with a family history of the disease also fall into the high-risk group. They are advised to undergo ultrasound tests, which cost between HK$800 to HK$1,000.

Fatty liver is more common in men aged 40 years or above, or women over 50.

There is no single medical treatment to cure a fatty liver, but the situation can be reversed through dietary changes and losing weight.