Viral Hepatitis and Fatty Liver Disease: What's the Common Denominator?

Widespread ignorance about the importance of the liver and how to protect it from harm obstructs our path to disease elimination.


Millions of Americans live with viral hepatitis, a dangerous infectious disease that causes liver damage and a myriad of related health complications – yet more than half of these individuals are completely unaware of their infection status. Hepatitis B and C, in particular, are mainly responsible for the rising rates of liver cancer in the United States. Similarly, Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) prevalence has also increased. NAFLD is, in fact, the leading indicator for liver transplantation and a leading cause of liver cancer.


It seems that we can't get ahead of these liver-related diseases. Why is that?


A significant deterrent has been that the public is uninformed about the importance of their liver, how hepatitis viruses and excess sugar and fats can cause irreparable liver damage, or even what cirrhosis is. This massive ignorance coupled with decades of stigma surrounding liver disease has been detrimental to progress.


Many individuals do not realize that everything they eat, breathe, and absorb through their skin must be refined and detoxified by their liver. Even fewer realize how their unhealthy choices of fatty foods, sugary foods, and drinks contribute to the build-up of fat in their liver, smothering healthy liver cells and turning them into scar tissue called cirrhosis. Even hepatitis patients who are aware of their infection have a minimal understanding of how daily lifestyle behaviors like misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs plus overeating of sugary and fatty foods are adding insult to injury to their ailing liver.


So, what can we do? Our nation must recognize that liver-related primary prevention and health education are essential in addressing current and future hepatitis infections and fatty liver disease indications. There are numerous opportunities to promote simple liver health messages that individuals can relate to daily. Making complex liver information understandable, personal, and memorable is the key to motivating individuals to act on what they've learned to prevent liver damage and achieve improved health outcomes.


The Stravitz-Sanyal Institute for Liver Disease and Metabolic Health at Virginia Commonwealth University is making great strides to revolutionize liver disease research, prevention, clinical engagement, and management. The Institute has committed to taking an innovative approach to address the deficits in the availability of relatable information surrounding liver health and diseases, addressing the dire need to motivate individuals to participate actively in their health care to enhance positive outcomes. According to the Institute's Director, Dr. Arun Sanyal, "Enhancing public awareness about liver health and the devastating consequences of liver disease, such as hepatitis, is a significant element of our strategy at the Stravitz-Sanyal Institute. Most people worldwide are completely unaware of the vital importance of the liver to our health, and we must engage in effective communications that are adaptable and understandable across all languages and cultures."


This sort of vision is precisely what is needed to redefine liver disease. Without educating individuals about the importance of the liver in sustaining the hundreds of essential body functions and making informed and healthier food and lifestyle choices, we will continue to miss valuable opportunities to prevent one or more chronic liver-related diseases unaddressed and at epidemic proportions worldwide. Ignorance is the liver's worst enemy.


The eye-catching teaching tools with memorable descriptions of complex liver functions developed and used by Thelma King Thiel, Chair of the Liver Health Initiative, put a new face on the liver. Her relentless efforts give the liver the accolades it deserves for keeping our bodies functioning nonstop. However, the non-complaining liver depends on each of us to feed it a healthy diet and avoid behaviors that can damage its life-supporting liver cells, which perform miracles 365 days a year.

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