Liver specialists say the lethal effects of lockdown drinking have led to a 30pc rise in hospital admissions for liver disease.
Professor John Ryan, consultant at Beaumont Hospital’s Hepatology Unit in Dublin, said hospital data comparing the first five months of 2020 to the same period in 2021 shows an increase of 28pc in conditions such as cirrhosis and liver failure. The majority of cases that end up in hospital are alcohol related, he said: “About 70pc are due to alcohol. It is alcohol that tips them over.”
His counterpart in the Mater, Professor Steve Stewart, has seen an increase of about 30pc in presentations of patients with advanced liver disease. His estimation is based on observation of patient numbers, while awaiting a formal hospital audit of 2021.
“From what I have seen on the ground, there is a 30pc increase in patients presenting with advanced liver disease,” said Prof Stewart. “Every day, we get handed someone with end-stage liver disease from the emergency department.
“Now, we have always got 10 patients on the ward aged between 40 and 60, which is more than normal. It’s a very definite increase.”
Prof Stewart, director of the Centre for Liver Disease at the Mater, believes the switch to drinking at home has led to the rise in alcoholic-related liver disease.
“We are seeing the end-stage consequences of that now.” he said. “End-stage is advanced liver disease at the point it is not going to recompensate and the patient either dies or gets transplanted. No doubt the pandemic has had a very significant effect on people’s approach to alcohol caused by a shift in drinking habits, switching from the pub to home.”
“They can afford a lot more, there’s less control. My concern is what we are seeing now is only the thin end of the wedge.”
Both consultants say the increase in figures is not surprising as admissions in alcohol-related liver conditions remained steady during lockdown, while those for other health conditions went down.
Prof Stewart said: “We looked at the numbers in the early stage of lockdown and there were the same amount of admissions for alcohol-related liver disease. That was in contrast with the trend for almost every other condition — people weren’t coming in as they were scared of Covid. But they kept coming for liver. And now we're seeing the rise."
Prof Ryan agrees lockdown drinking habits triggered it, saying drinking cheap alcohol at home has “definitely” contributed to the rise in numbers. “Also, anxiety and stress related to the pandemic resulted in some people self-medicating with alcohol and others drank to deal with isolation.”
A quarter of admissions to non-Covid ICU are alcohol related. “Patients with liver failure, pancreatitis and gastro-intestinal bleeding. It was a real problem even before Covid — when such patients made up 17.8pc of ICU — and it still is.”
A report by the Health Research Board in April found “a major shift to home drinking during the pandemic” with a “steep increase” in off-licence sales since March 2020.
It concluded: “While it is still too early to tell the full impact of the change in drinking habits due to the pandemic, all signs point to substituting drinking in on-trade premises with drinking at home.”