Together In Electric Dreams Giorgio Morodor/Phil Oakey
A national screening programme is needed to tackle the ''ticking time bomb'' of liver disease caused by alcohol, obesity and hepatitis, according to a top doctor.
Dr Mark Wright, a consultant hepatologist at Southampton General Hospital, has called for action after the number of deaths rose by a quarter in less than a decade.
He made his comments after the Hampshire hospital unveiled its new high-tech ultrasound probe to diagnose liver damage without the need for invasive biopsies and overnight hospital stays.
The FibroScan, which uses sound waves to assess the degree of tissue damage, takes around 10 minutes to complete and gives specialists an immediate overview of a patient's liver health through computerised images.
Dr Wright, who is a spokesman for the British Liver Trust, said:
''The need for liver disease to be treated as a priority has never been more evident.
''Deaths have increased by a quarter in less than a decade and we are sat on a triple ticking timebomb of the consequences of alcohol, obesity and hepatitis which, if we don't intervene, will send things spiralling completely out of control.
''With advances in technology, such as the FibroScan, we are in a better position than ever to tackle this crisis head-on as we can quickly and accurately assess people early on, without posing any risks to their health or requiring them to stay in hospital, then give them the support they need to fend off potential devastating threats to their health.''
Liver disease, the fifth biggest cause of death in England and Wales behind heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease, comes in more than 100 forms but is most commonly associated with alcohol abuse, obesity and viral hepatitis.
Inflammation and fibrosis - scarring - of the liver tissue, which affects around 10% of the UK population, can cause cirrhosis or liver failure and lead to cancer if diagnosis is delayed or if left untreated.
Previously, patients were assessed and diagnosed by biopsy using a large needle pushed through the ribs as either a day case procedure or overnight stay, which often needed to be repeated for accuracy.
Dr Wright said:
''The main advantage we have now is that we can avoid painful, unpleasant liver biopsies in a large number of patients and, with it, take away the risks associated with an invasive procedure and the lack of clarity sometimes found when testing a sample.
''Because it is easier, comfortable, quick and risk-free, more patients are benefiting from a thorough, targeted assessment of their liver and more could do in the future as this technology becomes more widely available.''
''Now is the time for serious consideration of the introduction of a national screening programme to allow us to step in early where we can and make a dent in the rising death rate before we reach a point over the next 20 years where we have lost all grip on control of the disease.''