Earlier this month, a 10-year-old boy was found to have moderate fatty liver disease at a nationwide free healthcare event organized by National Taiwan University Hospital, an unsettling diagnosis that prompted doctors to raise concerns about the nation’s growing childhood obesity problem.
The event was launched to mark the hospital’s 119th anniversary and is to last the entire month, during which free screening for degenerative arthritis and pediatric fatty liver disease is being provided at the hospital’s Yunlin Branch, while screening for dementia, hepatitis, liver disease and cancer are available at its Jinshan, Jhudong and Hsinchu branches.
Doctors say that out of 10 children tested for fatty liver disease, one was diagnosed as having a moderate case and two with a mild one, a result that points to a rise in obesity rates among children that the doctors attribute to overconsumption of unhealthy fast food.
“A 2005 study conducted by the then-Department of Health found that the rate of obesity among children was about 25 percent, but that number has climbed to more than 30 percent in the latest study conducted on the subject,” said pediatrician Chen Ssu-ta (陳思達), who works at the hospital’s Yunlin branch.
Chen said that while there is no causal link between obesity and fatty liver disease — in which the liver has abnormally high levels of fat, comprising from 5 to 10 percent of its total weight — research has proven that the two are positively correlated.
“The development of fatty liver disease is only the tip of an iceberg in terms of health problems as it is often accompanied by diabetes, abnormal liver function and high blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” Chen said.
To demonstrate the multiple health risks posed by obesity, Chen cited the case of a female junior-high school student who went to the doctor seeking advice about being overweight — her weight was in the triple digits — and was diagnosed not only with fatty liver disease, but also abnormal liver function and blood sugar levels.
Chen said that children whose body mass index reaches obesity levels are advised to undergo ultrasound testing to see if they have a fatty liver.
“If they have developed the disease, they should treat it with a healthy diet and lifestyle, rather than with medicine,” the pediatrician said.
People with fatty liver disease should first try to lose weight by adopting healthier eating habits and then adjust their lifestyle to include regular physical activity.
“Once they get rid of excess body fat, their liver has the chance to heal more quickly,” Chen said.