ABU DHABI // Children as young as 15 are being diagnosed with a liver disease normally suffered by adults, with doctors blaming poor diet and sedentary lifestyle.
Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis fatty liver is caused by a build-up of fat around the organ, leading to inflammation.
It has become a growing problem among youths, doctors say.
The fat damages the liver, affecting its function, and in up to 30 per cent of cases turns into cirrhosis, meaning the patient needs an organ transplant.
The disease is normally found in people between 30 and 40.
But Dr Ganesh Bhat, gastroenterologist at Dubai’s Medeor 24x7, said the parents of one 15-year-old boy took him to the hospital because they were worried about his obesity.
His body mass index was 32 – and he was in the early stages of fatty liver.
“This child ate a lot of junk food and had no outdoor exercise, and unfortunately this is a very common thing here,” Dr Bhat said. “Although it is rare to see children under 10 years present with it, it is increasing among teenagers.”
Doctors blame more than half of the cases on the growing problem of sedentary lifestyles, which is also the leading cause of obesity.
They say this type of fatty liver will be the world’s leading cause of liver transplants by 2020.
The first stage of the disease is a fatty liver that can be fixed through lifestyle changes. But if not addressed the disease progresses to liver damage and, if still not treated, to cirrhosis.
Most patients diagnosed with the disease have not learnt about it, Dr Bhat said.
“If I see 10 patients a day, six of them have it and most of the time people are not aware about these conditions,” he said.
“If they are obese they think about diabetes, cholesterol and heart problems, but rarely have a liver test.
“The liver is usually neglected and it should not be because it is as vital an organ as the heart.
“Heart problems cause immediate death but liver causes slow death if issues are not addressed.
“At the rate it is growing, it will be an epidemic in the long run.”
Dr Khalid Elsayed, head of gastroenterology and hepatology at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said he saw cases of the disease every day.
“The majority of patients discover it incidentally,” Dr Elsayed said. “They come in for an ultrasound for another reason and find out that they have it.
“Very few patients are aware of the problem. Even within the group that do, they do not know how serious fatty liver can be.
“There are a handful of patients in the UAE that reach the stage of transplant every year because of fatty liver and it is very tricky because we do not have pre-transplant assessment facilities here yet.
“It is anticipated that, worldwide, the disease is going to be a big problem and the UAE is no exception.
“It’s more likely to happen here because of the prevalence of obesity.”
Most UAE residents who have it diagnosed are in the first stage, Dr Elsayed said.
“It starts simply by additional fat in the body being around the liver with no specific symptoms as such,” he said. “This is where most patients are at right now.
“Being unaware of the condition and not adopting a healthy lifestyle to reverse it is only going to make it worse.”