Conference Coverage

Liver disease-related deaths rise during pandemic



U.S. mortality for alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD) and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) increased at “alarming” rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new findings presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

Yee Hui Yeo, MD, a resident physician and hepatology-focused investigator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles

Dr. Yee Hui Yeo

Between 2019 and 2021, ALD-related deaths increased by 17.6% and NAFLD-related deaths increased by 14.5%, Yee Hui Yeo, MD, a resident physician and hepatology-focused investigator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said at a preconference press briefing.

“Even before the pandemic, the mortality rates for these two diseases have been increasing, with NAFLD having an even steeper increasing trend,” he said. “During the pandemic, these two diseases had a significant surge.”

Recent U.S. liver disease death rates

Dr. Yeo and colleagues analyzed data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistic System to estimate the age-standardized mortality rates (ASMR) of liver disease between 2010 and 2021, including ALD, NAFLD, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Using prediction modeling analyses based on trends from 2010 to 2019, they predicted mortality rates for 2020-2021 and compared them with the observed rates to quantify the differences related to the pandemic.

Between 2010 and 2021, there were about 626,000 chronic liver disease–related deaths, including about 343,000 ALD-related deaths, 204,000 hepatitis C–related deaths, 58,000 NAFLD-related deaths, and 21,000 hepatitis B–related deaths.

For ALD-related deaths, the annual percentage change was 3.5% for 2010-2019 and 17.6% for 2019-2021. The observed ASMR in 2020 was significantly higher than predicted, at 15.7 deaths per 100,000 people versus 13.0 predicted from the 2010-2019 rate. The trend continued in 2021, with 17.4 deaths per 100,000 people versus 13.4 in the previous decade.

The highest numbers of ALD-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic occurred in Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

For NAFLD-related deaths, the annual percentage change was 7.6% for 2010-2014, 11.8% for 2014-2019, and 14.5% for 2019-2021. The observed ASMR was also higher than predicted, at 3.1 deaths per 100,000 people versus 2.6 in 2020, as well as 3.4 versus 2.8 in 2021.

The highest numbers of NAFLD-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic occurred in Oklahoma, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

Hepatitis B and C gains lost in pandemic

In contrast, the annual percentage change in was –1.9% for hepatitis B and –2.8% for hepatitis C. After new treatment for hepatitis C emerged in 2013-2014, mortality rates were –7.8% for 2014-2019, Dr. Yeo noted.

“However, during the pandemic, we saw that this decrease has become a nonsignificant change,” he said. “That means our progress of the past 5 or 6 years has already stopped during the pandemic.”

By race and ethnicity, the increase in ALD-related mortality was most pronounced in non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black, and Alaska Native/American Indian populations, Dr. Yeo said. Alaska Natives and American Indians had the highest annual percentage change, at 18%, followed by non-Hispanic Whites at 11.7% and non-Hispanic Blacks at 10.8%. There were no significant differences in race and ethnicity for NAFLD-related deaths, although all groups had major increases in recent years.


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