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NHS mobile testing scheme identifies new cases of liver damage

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On-the-spot liver scanning trucks have been touring 18 areas of England.

More than 2,200 people in high-risk communities have been newly identified as being at risk of life-threatening liver cancer thanks to NHS roaming liver trucks across the country.

Under a major NHS drive to catch more cancers earlier and save more lives, 12 on-the-spot liver scanning trucks have been touring 18 areas of England.

The risk of liver cancer is due to their cirrhosis or advanced fibrosis and they have been found during the last 15 months, since the scheme launched last year.

Latest data shows the roaming trucks have performed more than 26,500 hi-tech fibroscans and identified 2,204 people with cirrhosis or advanced fibrosis, a leading cause of liver cancer – between June 2022 and September 2023 – with the majority of those individuals referred on to further care.

The mobile trucks are visiting high-risk communities at GP practices, recovery services, food banks, diabetes clinics, sexual health clinics and homeless shelters to perform quick, non-invasive scans.

Checks are being offered in the community to adults with high levels of alcohol consumption, a current diagnosis or history of past viral hepatitis, or non-alcoholic liver disease, as these factors increase the risk of developing liver cancer.

NHS staff are already visiting at-risk communities as part of the Hepatitis C Elimination Programme. This was expanded in June 2022 to include a liver health check involving an on-the-spot fibrosis scan which detects liver damage.

Around 6,200 people are diagnosed with liver cancer each year, but the number of cases has doubled over the past decade and is expected to continue to rise.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “We are seeing liver cancers increasing year on year, but finding them early gives the best chance of successful treatment, which is why we have set up this initiative that is having such a positive impact and making it easier for people who are at a higher risk of liver cancer or other organ damage to get life-saving checks.

“Bringing liver scans into the heart of communities has already helped us find thousands of people with liver damage that needs further monitoring, investigation, or treatment; and in the future, we expect to help tens of thousands more patients receive a diagnosis sooner.

“Lives are saved when cancers are caught early and when more people are referred for tests, which is why the NHS has put so much effort into early diagnosis in recent years, as well as increasing access to testing.”

Increasing survival rates

Currently only one in three liver cancers are diagnosed at an early stage, but this initiative is helping to catch more cancers earlier, giving patients a much better chance of surviving the illness. If caught early, patients have a 45 per cent chance of survival for five years or more with treatment, compared to just five per cent of those diagnosed at stage four.

Those who are deemed high risk of liver cancer or cirrhosis will be provided with information about their level of risk and, where appropriate, will be referred to their GP. If needed, patients will be referred straight into a six-month liver surveillance care programme, where they will be partnered with a peer support worker who will continue to check in, as well as offer guidance and help informed by people who have experienced liver disease themselves.

On-the-spot liver scanning initiative is an essential part of the NHS’s ambition of detecting more cancer as early as possible, which will see three in four people have their cancer detected at a very early stage when treatment is more effective.

One person who has benefited from on-the- spot liver scanning is Helen Coombs from Bristol. Helen received liver screening in November 2022 at a drop-in event in Easton, Bristol. She was referred onto the Hepatology team at Bristol Royal Infirmary and diagnosed with liver disease.

Helen’s condition was caught early due to the hospital’s ‘Alright My Liver’ programme. University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust staff have supported Helen to make healthy lifestyle changes to improve her health and help maintain the condition of her liver.

Helen said: “I was surprised. The doctors and nurses explained my diagnosis really well. I’m now trying to eat more healthy and keep up the swimming. I would advise anyone who was worried about their liver health or at risk to get a scan and seek advice.”

Symptoms of liver cancer include unexpected weight loss, loss of appetite, vomiting blood, and pain or swelling of the abdomen. If anyone has symptoms of liver cancer, they should contact their GP straight away.

The NHS on-the-spot scanning initiative identifies those at risk of the most common form of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), which makes up 85 per cent of all liver cancers.

Pamela Healy, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, added: “The earlier we detect liver cancer; the quicker treatment can begin and the better the chance of survival. We know that the biggest risk factor for developing liver cancer is having pre-existing liver disease. However, sadly this is a silent killer that usually has no symptoms in the early stages which is why these community liver health checks are so vital. Early scanning of high-risk patients literally saves lives.”

Health chiefs continue to encourage people to come forward for checks if invited by the NHS or if they have experienced any worrying symptoms.

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