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Wednesday, 31 July, 2002, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
Drug warning as liver disease rockets
Drug paraphernalia
Sharing needles increases risks of infection
Deaths from alcoholic liver disease in England have doubled in just six years - but drugs, rather than drink, may be to blame.

While the cases of "alcoholic" liver disease have soared, there has been no similar rise in alcohol consumption.

Instead, doctors say that the legacy of intravenous drug use in the 1970s and 1980s is catching up with people.

One of the risks of sharing needles is catching the hepatitis C virus.

This can persist in the body for years and contribute to long-term liver damage.

In hepatitis C patients, alcohol consumption has been shown to actually accelerate the rate at which liver damage accumulates.

Between 1993 and 1999, official records show that deaths from alcohol-related illness rose by 59% for men, and 40% for women.

Deaths from unspecified alcohol liver damage rose by 259% in men aged between 40 and 59.


These are people who would have been involved in the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s

Professor John Henry, Imperial College
Professor John Henry, from Imperial College London, said: "There has been a marked increase in the number of hepatitis C cases, with up to 300,000 infected in the UK.

"In hepatitis C sufferers, alcohol consumption has been shown to cause accelerated liver damage, a higher frequency of cirrhosis, and a higher incidence of hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer), eventually leading to death."

Many patients who suffer severe liver damage after long-term infection with hepatitis C, or alcoholic liver damage, require a transplant in order to survive.

Experts have already predicted an explosion in the numbers of people on transplant waiting lists over the next decade as the effects of intravenous drug use 20 or even 30 years ago begins to be felt.

Professor Henry said: "Although we have no evidence that men currently aged between 40 and 59 years have a higher lifetime history of illicit drug use than younger or older groups, these are people who would have been involved in the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s.

"This was before the introduction of needle exchange and other interventions to reduce the risk of HIV transmission among drug users."

No proof

Dr David Ball, researcher for charity Action on Addiction, said that it could not be taken as proof that drug use was to blame.

He said: "Drink consumption during the 70's also increased from six litres to 10 litres per capita and it is possible that we are simply seeing the effects of this dramatic alcohol increase many years down the line."

"In addition the average rate of deaths from chronic liver disease in Europe is falling yet the prevalence rate for Hepatitis C in Europe remains similar to the UK so this suggests that the two are not necessarily related."

He called for further research into the issue.

See also:

30 Mar 00 | G-I
30 Jul 02 | Health
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