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Jump in Alberta alcohol-related hospitalizations in COVID's 1st wave: study

A poll last year by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addictions found about 25 per cent of Canadians between 35 and 54 increased their alcohol consumption during the first few months of the pandemic for reasons that included boredom and stress.
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A person walks past shelves of bottles of alcohol on display at an LCBO in Ottawa, on March 19, 2020. Albertans needing hospital care for an alcohol-related liver disease almost doubled during the first wave of the pandemic, a study from the University of Calgary shows. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

CALGARY — A study from the University of Calgary has found that the number of Albertans hospitalized for an alcohol-related liver disease almost doubled during the first wave of COVID-19.

Dr. Abdel-Aziz Shaheen, an assistant professor at the Cumming School of Medicine, said patients admitted for alcoholic hepatitis were also younger, with an average age of 43, compared with 48 before the pandemic. 

The study found hospitalization rates for the condition — an inflammation of the liver as a result of excessive drinking — increased to 22.1 per 10,000 admissions, up from 11.6 per 10,000 admissions before the pandemic.

Shaheen said the findings are concerning on many fronts, including how young the most affected age group was and that the disease is preventable.

"There is no treatment, like a drug, or quick fix for this condition. This condition needs lowered drinking habits or consumption," he said Thursday.

"We can prevent this. We can give information. We can identify anyone who needs help early on and we can support them."

Shaheen suggested there may have been more cases that were not captured by the study.

"Due to the restrictions in place during the first wave of COVID-19, people suffering from alcoholic hepatitis may have chosen not to go to the hospital," he said.

"This is like an iceberg. We're only seeing the tip of it — the very sick people. The biggest problem is if you are drinking and you exceed the recommendations, you are causing damage."

The condition can be reversed if caught early but, in serious circumstances, can lead to end-stage liver disease and death.

The study compared data on all adult Alberta-based patients admitted to hospital between March 2020 and September 2020 to data on admissions between March 2018 and February 2020. 

The study included people receiving care for cirrhosis, whether alcohol-related or not, and alcohol hepatitis. 

Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, can be caused by different kinds of liver disease, such as hepatitis and chronic alcoholism.

Shaheen said physicians from England, France, and the United States have reported similar trends.

"That tells us that, most probably, we will have a significant rise of this problem," he said. "And we will see a lot of people in the near future, not the far future, with significant alcohol-related liver disease."

A poll last year by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addictions found about 25 per cent of Canadians between 35 and 54 increased their alcohol consumption during the first few months of the pandemic for reasons that included boredom and stress.

The Calgary study was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant. Additional funding has been secured to analyze similar data until 2022, which will allow for comparisons between different waves of the pandemic.

"I think we will see still a significant trend going up, but I expect it will plateau," said Shaheen. "But we don't know the level of saturation and that is something we need to study."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2021.

Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press