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Health and wellness

Liver cancer risk higher for men above 50 who recover from hepatitis B, Hong Kong study warns

Experts say liver damage is more serious in patients who take longer to fight chronic infection, leading to cancer risk

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 November, 2017, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 November, 2017, 10:41pm

Patients who recover from hepatitis B are still at risk of developing liver cancer, especially men aged above 50, according to a study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

On Monday at a press conference, researchers discussed the findings of the report, released earlier in the international medical publication the Journal of Hepatology.

The study looked at data from more than 150,000 hepatitis B virus carriers collected from Hong Kong’s public hospitals from 2000 to 2016. Of these patients, 4,568 were identified as having recovered from the infection.

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Researchers found that in this pool, men who recovered from hepatitis B when they were above the age of 50 had a 2.5 per cent risk of developing liver cancer five years later.

The rate was higher than women in the same position. Their liver cancer risk was 1 per cent.

Men who recovered at or below the age of 50 were found to have a lower liver cancer risk – 0.7 per cent – while women in the same age group were not at risk.

One of the study’s authors, Professor Grace Wong Lai-hung from the university’s division of gastroenterology and hepatology, said the link between hepatitis B and liver cancer could be a result of damage from chronic infection.

“A person’s liver might have repeatedly developed inflammation, fibrosis or even cirrhosis during the decades as a carrier [of hepatitis B]. Therefore even if a person is free from the viral infection later, his or her risk of liver cancer is still high,” Wong said.

A person is considered to have recovered from hepatitis B if he or she tests negative for surface antigens – a type of marker – but a small amount of the virus may still be lingering in the body, according to Wong.

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In Hong Kong, some 8 per cent of the adult population are infected with the hepatitis B virus.

Professor Henry Chan Lik-yuen, director of the university’s Centre for Liver Health, said cirrhosis referred to a late stage of liver scarring from damage, and it was an important risk factor for liver cancer.

Chan, who is also part of the research team in the study, explained why patients who recovered when they were older were more at risk.

“If a person took a shorter period to fight against the hepatitis B infection, his or her chance of liver recovery would be higher,” Chan said. “But if it takes a person 60 years to fight off the infection, the liver might have already been severely damaged.”

Chan added that in past studies, men were also found to be more likely to suffer from severe forms of the viral infection. He said while the exact reasons were still unclear, the trend was believed to be related to male hormones.

The team said men who recovered from the disease when they were above 50 years of age should go for ultrasound checks and blood tests every six months to monitor their health.