The single most important strategy to prevent liver cancer is to prevent infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). Prevention of HBV- and HCV-related liver cancer is also possible through effective treatment of the viral infection. See the Screening section of this chapter for more information.
Vaccination of all infants and adults in high-risk groups is the most effective preventive approach against HBV, with demonstrated long-term efficacy and benefits.
Other effective primary prevention strategies include ensuring a safe blood supply, universal precautions against blood contamination in healthcare settings and harm reduction approaches to reduce transmission from injecting drug use.
Reducing exposure to other factors that increase the risk of developing chronic liver disease, such as alcohol and aflatoxins, also will reduce the proportion of infected people who develop chronic liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma. Given the mounting evidence of the association of obesity, diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease with liver cancer, strategies to reduce the prevalence of obesity and related metabolic risk factors will become increasingly necessary. For individuals with hemochromatosis, family screening, early diagnosis and correcting iron overload can prevent liver fibrosis and hence progression to liver cancer. Research has shown that drinking coffee has a hepatoprotective effect.
An HBV vaccine has been available since 1982. The complete course induces protective antibody levels in more than 95% of infants, children and young adults and provides long-lasting protection. Since the introduction of the vaccine in Australia, there has been a decline in HBV notification rates among those eligible for universal vaccination .
Ensuring safe blood supply and universal precautions in healthcare settings
Transmission of hepatitis in healthcare settings has been greatly reduced due to the introduction of screening of blood donations prior to transfusion, or manufacture of blood products, and screening of organ donors prior to transplant.
The use of standard precautions in the clinical setting to minimise transmission of blood-borne viruses and other infection control measures has further minimised the risk of hepatitis transmission in healthcare settings.
In 2010, 39% of newly acquired HBV cases and 79% of newly acquired HCV cases were associated with injecting drug use. Studies suggest knowledge about hepatitis is poor among this high-risk population and most do not complete vaccination regimens.
Australian Government investment in needle and syringe programs between 2000 and 2009 was estimated to have prevented nearly 97,000 cases of HCV (and more than 32,000 new HIV infections) and saved $1.28 billion in direct healthcare costs.
HBV and HCV elimination
In 2016, the World Health Organization’s Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis 2016–2021 set a goal to eliminate worldwide viral HBV and HCV by 2030 and outlined five global service coverage targets:
- increase hepatitis B vaccination coverage
- increase coverage and timely delivery of birth dose vaccinations
- ensure blood and injection safety
- ensure adequate distribution of sterile syringes to people who inject drugs
- increase HBV and HCV diagnosis and treatment.
Elimination of HBV and HCV by 2030 would avert 7.1 million deaths from 2015-2030 (WHO 2016). In 2016, the Australian Government endorsed the WHO Global Health Sector Strategy on Viral Hepatitis 2016–2021 to eliminate HBV and HCV by 2030. Australia is currently not on track to achieve this global target .
Evidence shows liver cancer complicates alcoholic cirrhosis at a rate of approximately 1% per annum. As such, prevention of alcoholic liver disease by curbing alcohol intake has the potential to lower rates of liver cancer in countries where alcohol dependence is high.
See the Alcohol chapter of the National Cancer Prevention Policy for more information on the link between alcohol and cancer.
As further evidence of the association of NAFLD, diabetes, and obesity with liver cancer emerges, action is needed to prevent a significant ‘metabolic’ liver cancer burden in the future, including strategies aimed at reducing obesity through improved diet and physical activity.
See the Obesity and overweight, physical inactivity and nutrition chapter of the National Cancer Prevention Policy for more information on the link between these factors and cancer.
Early detection of haemochromatosis, and correction of hepatic iron overload before development of advanced stage fibrosis, prevents complications including liver cancer.
Haemochromatosis is easily detected by serum markers of iron overload and genetic screening of family members. Correction of hepatic iron overload by venesection before development of advanced stage fibrosis is an important strategy to prevent liver cancer.
The World Cancer Research Fund and International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the evidence and suggested that coffee drinking decreases the risk of liver cancer . Additionally, International Agency for Research on Cancer suggested that coffee drinking has benefits on liver fibrosis and cirrhosis . Coffee drinking may protect against liver cancer by reducing insulin levels and thereby type 2 diabetes risk, which is now an established risk factor.
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