What do people usually remember about the early years of their childhood? Pleasant recollections of a birthday celebrated, a fun place visited, or impressions abouta best friend?
The liver is a unique organ
The liver is vital for good health. Perhaps that is why nature made itthe largest solid organ in the body and the only one capable of regenerating itself. It is no surprise that when the liver ‘sneezes’, the whole body ‘catches a cold’.
The liver performs hundreds of essential functions. It filters out toxins and processes/stores sugar and other nutrients. From its location in the right upper abdomen where it is protected by the rib cage, the liver influences virtually every organ in the body.
...But the liver has its limits
The liver works extra hard to compensate and repair itself when a part of itis damaged . However, the healing process is imperfectand scar tissue build-up leads toliver fibrosis and ultimately cirrhosis. The cirrhotic liver is stiff and distorted, unable to perform its critical functions; some persons with chronic liver disease develop liver cancer.
Liver cirrhosis causes fatigue, poor appetite, y ellow discoloration of the eyes (jaundice), and swollen belly and legs among other symptoms. Quality of life plummetsjust as frequent clinic/hospital visits and mental sluggishnesstake a bite out of work productivity. For some people, a new liver (liver transplantation) is the only solution; however,liver transplantation is currently unavailable in sub-Saharan Africa, except South Africa.
Cirrhosis-related deaths are on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa due to shortage of resources to tackleit. A case in point is the huge shortage of hepatologists,(doctors with advanced training to manage chronic liver diseases). There is also inadequate access to liver biopsy (a procedure used to obtain liver sample for examination) and specialized ultrasound services to determine the severity of liver damage.
Managing chronic liver diseases
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies to chronic liver diseases. Some preventative measures such as proper diet and avoidance of alcohol slow down the progression from fibrosis to cirrhosis.
The WHO recommends hepatitis B vaccination for all infants, beginning as soon as possible after birth. This is because hepatitis B is a leading underlying cause ofliver cirrhosis insub-Saharan Africa andthis viral infectionis mostly acquired from the mother during birth or from siblings and other playmates before the age of 5. Hepatitis C, another viral infection but for which there is no vaccine, is also an important cause of chronic liver disease. Though effective antivirals are available to treat hepatitis B and C, poor access to these treatments illustrate health system gaps that must be closed.
Alcoho l is the most common non-infectious cause of chronic liver disease and should be avoided by those with liver disease. Meanwhile, fatty liver lurks in the shadows. Scientists project that fatty liver due to obesity will become a prominent cause of chronic liver disease in Africa unless Africans halt adoption of western habits and return to traditional lifestyles and diets.
Use of unregulated herbal concoctions is an under-appreciated cause of chronic liver disease. There is a fine line, however,as someherbal supplements have been formulated to slow down liver damage andimprove quality of life in people with chronic liver disease. Expert guidelines that are backed by scientific evidence and regulatory oversight are needed forsafe and effective use of herbal products.
In summary, chronic liver diseases loom largein the public health landscape of sub-Saharan Africa. Appropriate messaging and infrastructure for prevention and treatment will minimize associated deaths and suffering.
This article was sponsored by Fidson Healthcare PLC.