However, a newer method of blood testing, such as one launched this month by a biotech company called iQur, offers doctors another way to diagnose the extent of liver damage. “When the liver is becoming damaged and laying down scar tissue, chemical ‘markers’ can be detected in the blood,” explains Wright.
However, marker tests are not yet available from all GPs and clinics – and, says Wright, results can sometimes be ambiguous, so many people will still have to rely on biopsies. The government has no plans for a national liver screening programme, but as young drinkers reach middle age and the true state of the nation’s livers begins to reveal itself, this could become a priority. The government did last month announce that by the end of next year, alcohol labels should warn drinkers of the amount of units per glass or bottle and the recommended safe drinking levels. This will be accompanied by a new campaign to raise awareness of the amount of units people consume.
Government research has shown that only 13% of the population keeps a check on the number of units they drink each week. And when a Channel 4 documentary, shown last night, tested 80 volunteers for liver damage, over half showed abnormal results.
In the meantime, the advice is to take responsibility for your own health. “If you are drinking above the government’s recommended limits, you should definitely cut down,” says Wright.
Whether you binge drink or spread your alcohol over a week makes no difference: you will still overload your liver. For some people cirrhosis can develop much faster than the usual 10 or 15 years. However, doctors do not yet fully understand what makes one person’s liver zoom quickly towards catastrophe, while another’s will linger in the early stages for decades. Genes probably play a role, as do existing health conditions such as diabetes or Nash.
Once there, scars on the liver will not go away, but it is possible to reverse the inflammation that causes the scarring. Bunn stopped drinking at the 11th hour. She now has an enlarged liver and heart, but her liver is at least functioning.
“You can do a lot to heal your liver without any drugs or operations if you lose weight or cut down on drinking,” says Wright.
You might, then, want to reconsider your weekend pub binge or your takeaway habit. The road to the transplant unit could be significantly shorter than you think.