At the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, the liver transplant group is busy handling an onslaught of patients who have come from all over the country in hopes of a chance at life. For many, a liver transplant is their last hope, after being diagnosed with a deadly disease sweeping the nation at epic proportions. People crowd the unit and undergo scores of testing and evaluation in an effort to get on the hospital’s coveted transplant list. It’s a program with a 94 percent survival rate after liver transplant, one of the highest in the nation.
For many the culprit is a serious form of fatty liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, also known as NASH. An outgrowth of the obesity epidemic in the Western world and around the globe, it causes scarring and inflammation that can lead to liver cirrhosis, cardiac and lung complications, liver cancer and death. Yet few people know about it.
Across the United States, millions of people of all ages suffer from this silent killer that slowly morphs from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that now affects 89 million in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Analysis. The National Institutes of Health estimates as many as 30 million people, or 12 percent of U.S. adults, now have NASH.
The effects of the disease — which include fibrosis, ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdomen), bleeding varices in the esophagus and liver cancer — are devastating. “By 2020 NASH will overtake hepatitis C as the No. 1 cause of liver transplantation in the U.S.,” says Dr. Maria Yataco, a gastroenterologist who is conducting research on NASH and liver disease at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.