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Health: Liver Disease

Volume 753: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014


Asked by

My Lords, improving outcomes for people with liver disease is a priority. Public Health England has a wide-ranging programme aimed at tackling its three major causes—viral hepatitis, alcohol abuse and obesity—through strengthening local action, promoting healthy choices and giving appropriate information to support healthier lives.

My Lords, I gather from that that the Government are not prepared to consider introducing a strategy, which is a great pity given that liver disease is now the fifth biggest killer and we have some of the worst figures in the whole of Europe. How does the Minister see a more general approach, rather than a specific target in a strategy, producing a change in the terrible figures which we now see in the number of deaths, given that the deprived areas of the country where most of them occur, such as Manchester, had a reduction in the funding to commissioners and GPs for this purpose last month?

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, NHS England is responsible for the overall national approach to improving clinical outcomes for people with liver disease. At the moment, it has no plans to produce a strategy specifically for liver disease, but it is adopting a broad strategy to reduce premature mortality, including mortality from liver disease. There is a major emphasis in the work being done by NHS England and Public Health England on prevention. They are supporting clinical commissioning groups and local authorities with a suite of tools to help them maximise the best possible outcomes for their local communities, such as local authority profiles. That can help local authorities and CCGs indentify the significance of liver disease in their area compared to the rest of the country, and the actions they could take to tackle it.

Can the Minister identify more clearly for me his definition of liver disease? He cited various things. Do his liver disease figures include the metastases from cancers, which are often a terminal condition? Are they treated separately or classified as part of the existing numbers?

My Lords, there are over 100 types of liver disease, which together affect at least 2 million people in the UK. The main ones are derived from alcohol misuse, viral infection, being overweight and obesity, and there are conditions that are inherited as well as those which attack the immune system. As regards metastases, I would need to be advised but I would imagine that that falls under the general heading of “liver cancer”, which is certainly included in my remarks to the noble Lord opposite.

My Lords, given the sad news that we have had in the past 48 hours of the death of Elena Baltacha, one of our best young tennis players—I have no idea about the history of her illness, but I know it has gone on for many years—what is the availability of liver transplants? That is a question that will cross many people’s minds. It would seem to me that if it was available and she was a suitable candidate, that could have been looked at. Can the Minister give us any assistance on that?

My Lords, I, too, learnt with great sadness of the death of Elena Baltacha, and was also unaware of the history of her medical condition. It is not appropriate for me to comment at the Dispatch Box on whether she should have received a liver transplant. However, I can say that transplant services are very active in this country. More and more liver transplants take place compared with a few years ago, and there are better techniques to ensure their tolerability in patients. If I can find out some more information, I will be happy to write to the noble Baroness.

Do the Government recognise that a strategy needs to be far wider-reaching than health, given that alcohol abuse results in two-fifths of crimes being alcohol-fuelled and in a cost to society of £55 billion a year? That sum would be recouped in part if the unit price of alcohol was raised by 10%, which would help to decrease the binge drinking which results in young people ending up in liver units with fulminant end-stage liver disease.

I agree with the noble Baroness that if we are to tackle liver disease we need to look as broadly as we can at the causes of alcohol misuse. We remain concerned about the wide availability of cheap, discounted alcohol and will soon take action to ban sales of alcohol below cost, where the price is equivalent to duty plus VAT. As regards minimum unit pricing, that remains a policy under consideration, but it will not be taken forward at the moment while we gather further empirical evidence. We do not want to launch a policy that may have unintended consequences.

My Lords, the incidence of liver cancer and liver disease is increasing significantly in young people, and it is the only cancer that continues to increase. Can my noble friend state whether there is a high-profile health education strategy that will help to tackle alcohol abuse and raise awareness among young people, who now talk about getting “preloaded” before they go out to drink alcohol, and which will highlight the issue of obesity? We need a high-profile health education campaign in that area.

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, there is of course scope to include alcohol awareness in relevant lessons in secondary schools. However, I take my noble friend’s point. I am encouraged by recent figures which show a drop in binge drinking, but that is no cause for complacency. It still takes place, and too many young people end up in specialist care and sometimes lose their lives. That is very much on Public Health England’s radar.

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to Elena Baltacha, who was a truly remarkable and very brave woman. One in five people in the UK is at serious risk of liver damage, but a recent government response shows that the Secretary of State has not met any external organisations to discuss liver disease since May 2010, and current Ministers have not met representatives of people living with liver disease since September 2012. Can the Minister commit urgently to remedying this situation, particularly as it is in such stark contrast to the 130-plus meetings the Government have had with the drinks industry?

My Lords, liver disease is very much in the sights of my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health, as is evidenced by the document we published last week, Living Well for Longer, in which there is a whole section on alcohol and liver disease, and by what NHS England and Public Health England are doing to tackle them.