More alcoholic liver patients 'eligible for transplant'

A donor liver is held by a surgeon Around 900 liver transplants are carried out in the UK each year

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People with a severe alcohol-related liver disease will be eligible for liver transplants for the first time in the UK under a pilot scheme.

NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) said only those under 40 who had not previously been treated for a drink problem would be eligible.

Severe alcohol-associated hepatitis patients would account for 1% of all liver transplants each year.

One in five liver transplants currently performed in the UK is alcohol-related.

Transplanting livers in heavy drinkers has always been a controversial issue.

Start Quote

We must base the assessment on the healthcare needs at the time to see who would most benefit from a liver transplant”

End Quote Andrew Langford British Liver Trust

In the past, debate has focused on the fact that alcohol-related liver disease is self-inflicted, and concerns that patients would not look after their new liver post-transplantation.

This has led the public and the medical profession to be wary of supporting transplantation in patients with alcoholism.

People with severe alcohol-associated hepatitis (SAAH) had not previously been considered for transplants because the severity of their illness meant they were often very ill when first seen by a clinician and were unlikely to survive a period of abstinence before transplantation.

However, a French study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 suggested that early transplantation in some patients with SAAH could produce positive outcomes and increase survival rates.

Self-inflicted

As part of the pilot scheme run by NHSBT, 20 people with severe alcohol-associated hepatitis will be identified and put on waiting list for a liver transplant, provided they meet the strict criteria.

This process could take up to two years, NHSBT said.

An NHSBT spokesperson said: "We are looking at a small group of people in the UK who are eligible for the scheme and we want to see if the results we get are similar to those of the French study."

Around one in five liver transplants currently performed in the UK is alcohol-related.

Approximately 900 liver transplants are carried out every year.

The government's chief medical officer said recently that growing numbers of people in England were dying from liver disease caused by heavy drinking and unhealthy eating.

'Psychological support'

Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said he welcomed the inclusion of SAAH patients in the pilot scheme.

He said: "Some liver diseases are caused by genetics but the vast majority are due to lifestyle choices, such as heavy drinking and obesity. But we must base the assessment on the healthcare needs at the time to see who would most benefit from a liver transplant.

"It is definitely worth doing the pilot to see if it could be of benefit in the UK."

He said that, with the right support, it was possible for people with severe alcohol-associated hepatitis (SAAH) to change their lifestyle and habits.

"It's one thing to get a new liver, but these people also need psychological support.

"With the right amount of support they can turn their lives around, as the French study shows."

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