Health experts are raising the alarm over the rising number of deaths from liver disease in Canada.

The Canadian Liver Foundation is calling it a public health crisis, after a landmark study found a 30 per cent increase in deaths from liver disease over eight years – with cases most prevalent in Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec.

“The incidence of serious liver disease has been growing quite significantly,” said Dr. Michael Houghton, a virologist and professor in the department of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta.

“It can take 20, 30, 40 years for the severe form of liver disease to express itself so people that contracted this in the 60s or 70s, early 80s, they’re the people now, some of whom, are expressing these severe forms of liver disease.”

The main causes of liver disease are hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, liver cancer, cirrhosis and alcoholism.

“What happens with these viruses is the longer you have them and the longer it is left untreated, the more severe liver disease can develop,” Houghton said.

Dion Lowe lives with hepatitis C.

Lowe says poor decisions made in his past led to the disease.

“I have experimented with drugs and I have done a lot of things in my life,” Lowe said.

“A lot of times we do things we’re not necessarily proud of.”

Lowe says injection drugs were likely responsible for transmitting hepatitis C into his system.

“The virus is active in my system and doing its best to destroy my liver,” Lowe said.

“I’m at about 20 per cent function as far as the liver goes.”

Lowe has gone through treatment and has been waiting years for a transplant.

“I’ve been on the list coming on three years now,” he said. “That’s the only thing that can help me now.”

Liver disease a 'ticking time bomb'

The report Liver Disease in Canada: A Crisis in the Making, is the first comprehensive report on the disease in Canada.

The Canadian Liver Foundation is recommending 21 short and long-term solutions to help defuse what it calls a “ticking time bomb.”

Some of those recommendations include:

  • Encourage family physicians to incorporate liver enzyme screening into all annual physicals.
  • Conducting a national seroprevalence survey with oversampling in high-risk communities to determine the prevalence of hepatitis B and C and identify the communities with the greatest need for resources.
  • Increase treatment capacity by establishing in-patient units and out-patient clinics to care for liver disease patients.
  • Implement widespread screening of new immigrants for hepatitis B.
  • Implement universal screening for hepatitis C for all adults born between 1945-1975.

“We know from past analysis that that group of baby boomers is particularly at risk for catching hepatitis C during that period,” Houghton said.

“Find out if you’re carrying it and consider treatment prior to the onset of severe liver disease.”

Click here to read the full liver disease report

The foundation is also urging federal and provincial governments and health agencies to work together to develop a national liver disease strategy that incorporates its recommendations.

Experts say many people like Lowe live with liver disease for years and don’t even know it.

Lowe has made it a mission to raise awareness about the issue, as early diagnosis and treatment can prevent severe forms of liver disease.

“You find things you do when you’re 20-years-old can really impact you when you’re 40. That’s the whole idea. That’s why I’m passionate to get the word out,” he said.

“There are a lot of people in my situation who might know. If they don’t make some investments now, it’s going to cost them a lot more in the long run.”

An estimated one in 10 Canadians suffer from some form of liver disease.

Other liver disease statistics

  • Liver failure related to hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants
  • An estimated 25 per cent of Canadians, or 8.5 million people, are obese and fatty-liver disease linked to obesity is the most common form of the disease in Canada.
  • Viral hepatitis (chronic hepatitis B and C) is far more common and more infectious than other infectious diseases including HIV.
  • Viral hepatitis affects more than 500 million worldwide and an estimated 600,000 in Canada.

Source: Liver Disease in Canada