NEW ORLEANS – Zobair M. Younossi, MD, declared at the annual meeting of the American College of Physicians.
The massive growth in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is being fueled to a great extent by the related epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus. While the overall prevalence of NAFLD worldwide is 24%, almost three-quarters of patients with NAFLD are obese. And the prevalence of NAFLD in individuals with T2DM was 58% in a recent meta-analysis of studies from 20 countries conducted by Dr. Younossi and his coinvestigators.
“The prevalence of NAFLD in U.S. kids is about 10%. This is of course part of the coming tsunami because our kids are getting obese, diabetic, and they’re going to have problems with NASH [nonalcoholic steatohepatitis],” said Dr. Younossi, a gastroenterologist who is professor and chairman of the department of medicine at the Inova Fairfax (Va.) campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
NASH is the form of NAFLD that has the strongest prognostic implications. It can progress to cirrhosis, liver failure, or hepatocellular carcinoma. As Dr. Younossi and his coworkers have shown (Hepat Commun. 2017 Jun 6;1:421-8), it is associated with a significantly greater risk of both liver-related and all-cause mortality than that of non-NASH NAFLD, although NAFLD also carries an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in that population.
In addition to highlighting the enormous clinical, economic, and quality-of-life implications of the NAFLD epidemic, Dr. Younossi offered practical tips on how busy primary care physicians can identify patients in their practice who have high-risk NAFLD. They have not done a very good job of this to date. That’s possibly due to lack of incentive, since in 2018 there is no approved drug for the treatment of NASH. He cited one representative retrospective study in which only about 15% of patients identified as having NAFLD received a recommendation for lifestyle modification involving diet and exercise, which is the standard evidence-based treatment, albeit admittedly difficult to sustain. And only 3% of patients with advanced liver fibrosis were referred to a specialist for management.
“So NAFLD is common, but its recognition and doing something about it is quite a challenge,” Dr. Younossi observed.
He argued that patients who have NASH deserve to know it because of its prognostic implications and also so they can have the chance to participate in one of the roughly two dozen ongoing clinical trials of potential therapies, some of which look quite promising. All of the trials required a liver biopsy as a condition for enrollment. Plus, once a patient is known to have stage 3 fibrosis, it’s time to start screening for hepatocellular carcinoma and esophageal varices.
The scope of the epidemic
NASH is the most rapidly growing indication for liver transplantation in the United States, with most of the increase coming from the baby boomer population. NASH is now the second most common indication for placement on the wait list. Meanwhile, liver transplantation due to the consequences of hepatitis C, the No. 1 indication, is declining as a result of the spectacular advances in medical treatment introduced a few years ago. It’s likely that in coming years NASH will take over the top spot, according to Dr. Younossi.
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