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Half a million children facing liver disease timebomb

Department of Health launches campaign to raise awareness of 'silent killer' linked to over-eating

Half a million children are under threat from a liver disease "timebomb" fuelled by obesity and under-age drinking, a government expert warned last night.

With two-thirds of children predicted to be overweight within 40 years, the Department of Health is to launch a major publicity campaign to get young people active this summer. They are concerned about the lack of awareness of the impact of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), caused by overeating. The condition is exacerbated by drinking.

Professor Martin Lombard, national clinical director for liver disease at the Department of Health, said the number of children at risk is likely to soar as waistlines expand. "Liver disease is a silent killer that is putting the lives of thousands of our children at risk. We do not want to see the next generations dying young from a condition that can be prevented.

"We know that with childhood obesity on the rise we can expect more children to be at risk of fatty liver disease in the near future.

"What's of great concern is the potential scenario of half a million children or more approaching their teenage years, which is when some experiment with large amounts of alcohol. Even modest amounts of alcohol may make NAFLD worse."

In total, 500,000 children aged from four to 14 are at risk. By 2050, it is predicted that 63 per cent of children will be obese. Caused by a build-up of fat within liver cells, NAFLD can trigger inflammation and swelling and prevent the liver from performing properly. This can lead to a cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes.

In some cases the disease can progress to cirrhosis of the liver, a life-threatening condition. As the symptoms do not appear until the disease is at an advanced stage, many people suffering from it will die young.

Experts are concerned that young people experiment with alcohol – particularly during the summer to celebrate the end of exams, straining their livers further and increasing the chance of long-term problems. The warning comes ahead of Childhood Obesity Week, which begins tomorrow.

The Department of Health is also launching a new Change4Life programme in a few weeks, which is aimed at changing permanently the lifestyles of millions of children who have become less active. The public health minister, Anne Milton, said: "If we are going to turn around the life chances of our children, it's important parents understand why being physically active matters so much."

Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said parents had to be made aware of the "hidden risks" of poor diet for their children. "Fatty liver disease is becoming a very common chronic liver disorder in Western countries and causes serious ill-health. In addition, many cases of fatty liver disease are linked to being obese. We all need to be aware that fat is not only stored on our body surface, but in and around our internal organs too."

Sarah Matthews, from the British Liver Trust, said: "Even though alcohol is regarded as the key cause of liver disease in the UK, weight-related liver damage is set to become a huge public health problem where obesity could overtake alcohol as the biggest single driver of cirrhosis in the future."