Liver Disease: A Poverty-Based Health Crisis?

18 February 2015

As a new MEP I have been trying to get to grips with all the different ways that the EU impacts on the lives of people in the North East. One area that has received little attention but is crucial for all our wellbeing is joint medical research. The member states have long worked together to find treatments and cures for the illnesses plaguing Europe's population, and this joint research has borne fruit for many cancers and other crippling diseases. However, there is one disease for which the North East finds itself particularly challenged: liver disease.

Last week I met with healthcare professionals to address the UK's growing epidemic of liver disease, which is today the third most common cause of premature death in the country. Specialists in the field have warned of a poverty-based health crisis, notably through the November 2014 Lancet Commission report. Liver disease is now the only major cause of mortality and morbidity on the rise in England.

Liver disease-related mortality can be attributed to three primary causes: alcohol, which accounts for 37% of cases in the UK; Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which in 85% of cases is contracted through intravenous drug use; and obesity.

My North East constituency has the highest rates of liver disease in the country. I have heard first hand about the tight link between liver-related illness and deprivation. As a region we have been disproportionately hit by austerity measures introduced by the Conservative-led Coalition government, ranking highest in terms of poverty, long-term unemployment and young people out of work. Today, 68% of the North East population is considered overweight or obese, a figure which has leapt in the last 10 years, increasing the risks of liver disease considerably.

In general, UK figures buck the European trend, where on the whole liver disease has been on the decline. France and Italy, for example - the two EU countries with by far the highest rates of liver disease-related mortality in 1970 - have seen a steady fall in the number of deaths from cirrhosis in the last 30 years. They have now been overtaken by the UK and Finland, where deaths due to liver problems have risen more than five-fold in the same period. Between 2001 and 2012 alone, the number of people that died with an underlying cause of liver disease in England rose by 40%.

This is a debilitating condition that is cutting short the lives of thousands of UK citizens every year. Yet there are several measures which, once in place, can have impressively swift and far-reaching results for liver health. Lessons from our Finnish neighbours demonstrate the direct link between the cost of alcohol and levels of consumption: following a 33% reduction in the tax on alcohol in 2004, liver disease in Finland rocketed to the highest level in Europe. The Finnish are now able to get a lot more alcohol for their money, with dire consequences for their health.

The victims of liver disease often have little to no political voice - it is therefore up to politicians to speak up and out on the need for action on what is a largely preventable and treatable disease. My Labour colleague Glenis Willmott MEP has been doing a brilliant job of raising awareness within the European Parliament about the damage alcohol does to our health, with a particular focus on its link to obesity.

Last week a key message received from the professionals in the field was that more was needed to develop affordable treatments and drugs to address different liver diseases. The European Commission's joint research programme 'Horizon 2020' programme is key here. This initiative is the biggest of its kind, and will provide nearly €80 billion of Research and Innovation funding over seven years (2014-20). North East-led researchers have just been granted €6m of these EU funds to look into fatty liver disease - one of the physical impacts of obesity. The European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) has recommended that at least 5% of the research funding (€423.3m) should be dedicated to tackling this public health crisis.

Allocating funding for systematic screening and the widespread use of antiretroviral drugs, for example, is a highly effective (and cost effective) way of reaching those affected - up to 75% of whom are undiagnosed - and of preventing the spread of the disease. Over 95% of people infected with HCV can be cured with oral treatment.

Under Glenis' leadership Labour MEPs have called for a new EU Alcohol Strategy to drive public health policies forward and ensure health outcomes are improved - one element should be alcohol labelling. Unlike other food and drink, labels on alcohol do not contain basic nutrition information, and Glenis has repeatedly called on the EU to look into clearer information on calorie content, minimum unit pricing and restrictions on advertising. Raising the minimum alcohol unit price to 50p, the Lancet medical journal estimates, could reduce alcohol consumption by 6.7% in the UK. A further 20% tax on soft drinks with a high sugar content could reduce obesity rates by 2.4% for women and 3.8% for men. These are just some measures to address the rapidly deteriorating situation, but they should be part of a holistic approach which tackles the root causes of liver disease. We need to re-start the economy, increase living standards, and reduce unemployment and in-work poverty.

As Labour MEPs we are not willing to let medical research funding and policy be dictated by the wealth or strength of vested interests or particular parts of society. Politicians must ensure that those without a voice are heard, particularly as a silent epidemic emerges in our midst.

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