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Worldwide Liver Cancer Rates Increased, But May Drop in Coming Years


Liver cancer diagnoses have increased in the past 25 years, but researchers are hopeful that they will start to drop.

Liver cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world and the fourth most common cause of cancer-related death. And, unfortunately, according to a recent study published in JAMA Oncology, the prevalence of the disease continues to rise.

The Global Burden of Disease Liver Cancer Collaboration — an international group of researchers — tracked liver cancer rates in nearly 200 countries and territories between 1990 and 2015. During that time, there were about 854,000 incidents of newly diagnosed liver cancers, and 810,000 people — not necessarily those who were recently diagnosed — died of the disease.

“Liver cancer remains a major public health burden globally. The major causes for liver cancer are highly preventable or treatable,” the authors wrote.

The researchers saw a 75 percent increase in liver cancer cases during the time of the study. They determined that 47 percent of the increase can be explained by the population’s age and 35 percent by overall population growth.

Broken down by geographic region, East Asia had the highest number of liver cancer diagnoses, followed by high-income Asia Pacific countries (diagnoses were specifically high in Japan), Western Europe and then Southeast Asia. East Asia also ranked above the rest in the number of deaths caused by liver cancer, followed by Southeast Asia, high-income Asia Pacific and then Western Europe.

However, the researchers seemed confident that with public health pushes for vaccination and healthier habits the number of liver cancer diagnoses around the globe can be drastically decreased.

Major risk factors of the disease include infections, such as hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV); behavioral factors like alcohol or tobacco use; and metabolic factors, such as excess body fatness, noted the authors.

While the number of HCV and alcohol-related incidents would have increased in the past 25 years, even if the population remained the same, the number of HBV cases would have decreased.

“These findings highlight two important issues,” the authors wrote. “First, primary liver cancer prevention through HBV vaccination is starting to show successes; and second, health care systems not only have to invest in prevention but also have to plan for the increasing number of patients with liver cancer that they will face despite prevention programs.”

Obviously, a decrease in the number of diagnoses would eventually lead to fewer people dying from the disease each year. The study results show that about 265,000 (33 percent) liver cancer-related deaths were a result of HBV, 245,000 (30 percent) from alcohol use, 167,000 (21 percent) from HCV and 133,000 (16 percent) were listed as “other.”

“Obvious targets for primary prevention include liver cancers due to HBV and HCV. Assuming that present HBV vaccination trends continue, between 2020 and 2050, the number of new HBV infections is estimated to drop by 70 percent,” the authors wrote.

The authors concluded that “most cases of liver cancer can be prevented through vaccination, antiviral treatment, safe blood transfusion and injection practices, as well as interventions to reduce excessive alcohol use.”

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