Facts and figures


The liver is the body’s largest internal organ and is essential to life. It performs over 500 different functions for the body, including: processing digested food from the intestine; combating infections in the body; manufacturing, breaking down and regulating numerous hormones; and making enzymes and proteins which are responsible for most chemical reactions in the body1.

The liver’s complexity makes it susceptible to many different diseases, including:

  • Hepatitis – the most common liver disease which causes inflammation of the liver. It can occur in both viral (e.g. Hepatitis A, B, C, D, E) and non-viral forms (e.g. alcoholic and autoimmune hepatitis) and may result in an acute or chronic condition.
  • Cirrhosis – the excessive development of scar tissue within the liver which can lead to complete liver failure. This is the result of long-term, continuous damage to the organ.
  • Fatty liver disease – covering a range of conditions where there is a build-up of fat in the liver cells. It is caused by certain chemical compounds (particularly alcohol) and by nutritional and endocrine disorders, such as obesity and diabetes.
  • Liver cancer – which may occur as both primary (cancer that starts in the liver) and secondary (cancer that first develops elsewhere in the body and then spreads to the liver).
  • Genetic diseases – such as haemochromatosis, Wilson’s disease and Glibert’s syndrome.

The scale of the issue

The prevalence of liver diseases is estimated to be approximately 6% in the EU2 – some 29 million people suffer from liver diseases.

In Europe, liver disease causes the death of 70,000 people annually and it is the fifth most common cause of death, responsible for just over 14% of all deaths. This varies widely across Europe, from 54% in Hungary to 4% in the Netherlands3.

Hepatitis, the most common liver disease, is estimated to affect over 10 million people in Europe3.

Liver cancer is the 5th most common cause of cancer-related deaths globally, and the 14th most prevalent in Europe4, It accounts for 5.4 %, or 695,000 deaths worldwide (47000 deaths in Europe)5. Liver cancer is the leading cause of death amongst patients with liver cirrhosis6.

Epidemiological projections point to an increase in the number of people at risk of chronic liver disease7.


  1. British Liver Trust, ‘Looking after your liver’ Available at: http://www.britishlivertrust.org.uk/liver-information/looking-after-your-liver/
  2. The European Liver Patients Association (April 2005). http://www.elpa-info.org/.
  3. EU Statistical Yearbook 2006-2007, data from 2004. ECDC Epidemiological Report on communicable Diseases, May 2007.
  4. Ferlay J. et al. (2010). Estimates of cancer incidence and mortality in Europe in 2008. Eur J Cancer 46(4):765–81.
  5. European Association for the Study of the Liver http://www.easl.eu
  6. Sangiovanni A. et al (2004). Increased survival of cirrhotic patients with a hepatocellular carcinoma detected during surveillance. Gastroenterology, 126(4):1005-14.
  7. Burroughs, A. and McNamara, D. (2003). Liver disease in Europe. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 18:54–59.

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