24 August 2022
It has been described as a stealth killer that impacts at least one in four Australians1 and is rising rapidly. Disease prevalence is expected to increase by 25–50 per cent over the next 10 years, including 15–20 per cent in children2. It is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and a common type of liver cancer, and it is expected to become the leading cause of liver transplant within the next 20 years. So why have so few Australians heard of metabolic associated fatty liver disease (MAFLD), the most common cause of liver disease?
Well, it recently underwent a name change3 and this might be one reason. It used to be known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) but with advances in current knowledge of fatty liver diseases, it became apparent that the four-decade-old term could no longer be used to describe a disease with several root causes. The disease, as we understand it today, not only impacts patients who consume alcohol and those who do not, but also potentially impacts all patients with any form of liver disease by acting as a disease modifier. The name change was touted as a game changer, but the wheels may not be turning fast enough.
Unfortunately, with our current understanding, we are poorly placed to curb the rising health impacts associated with this disease, which is exemplified by a number of key challenges. It is defined as excessive accumulation of fat in the liver of people without excessive alcohol intake. Managing obesity is critical to managing this disease. Currently, lifestyle intervention is the frontline treatment for both obesity and MAFLD however, only a small proportion of people successfully manage their condition with lifestyle alone. And not all people who are overweight have MAFLD — in fact, around 40 per cent of people are not at all and adiposity here is not the main driver. Unfortunately, when it comes to diagnosis, few effective non-invasive diagnostic and prognostic tools exist for this disease.
Current blood tests for liver function are often insufficient to capture the majority of those with underlying MAFLD, and so many patients go undetected until disease progresses to a severe state.
Relatively cheap and contemporary scanning techniques such as FibroScan may have benefit in improving diagnosis in certain at risk populations — particularly in those with diabetes.
Early detection is critical to preventing subsequent complications, however more than 80 per cent of patients with metabolic associated fatty liver disease have few symptoms and fail to visit their doctor until their disease has progressed to a stage that is mostly irreversible. As for treatment, there are currently no clinically approved pharmacological therapeutics that specifically treat this disease4. That’s why the work of Associate Professor Brian Drew, Associate Professor Anna Calkin and their teams is so important. They hope to establish why some people are more prone to fatty liver disease than others.
Equally concerning is that most countries do not have a national policy to manage MAFLD1.
If we are to curb the escalating health impacts of this disease, investment in better prevention, diagnostic and treatment strategies are required.
For more information, see What is metabolic associated fatty liver disease? in the Health Hub.
- The global NAFLD policy review and preparedness index: are countries ready to address this silent public health challenge?
J Hepatol 2022
- Global epidemiology of NAFLD-related HCC: trends, predictions, risk factors and prevention
Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol 2021
- A new definition for metabolic dysfunction-associated fatty liver disease: an international expert consensus statement
J Hepatol 2020
- Updates in fatty liver disease: pathophysiology, diagnosis and management
Aust J Gen Pract 2021