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Something unusual is happening to liver cancer rates globally, especially in developed nations such as Australia. While the incidence of many other cancers tend to be decreasing – as we get a better handle on risk factors like alcohol and tobacco use – liver cancer is moving in the opposite direction.

According to Cancer Australia, there were over 2900 new cases of liver cancer diagnosed in 2022 and sadly almost 2500 people died from liver cancer in 2022.

Between 1982 and 2014, the incidence of liver cancer increased more than 300 per cent. The mortality rate increased by 184 per cent. Research from the Queensland University of Technology, explored this trend and what could be driving the rise.

The authors say that the factors leading to the development of liver cancer – primarily hepatitis B and C, and alcohol consumption – were generally trending down in Australia over the study period, due to antiviral treatments, immunisation and other interventions. However, another factor, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, was prevalent in Australia.

The team’s analysis suggested liver cancer was becoming more prevalent particularly in the northern parts of Australia, which they hypothesised was linked to changes in climate. With several years in the past decade the hottest on record, they suggest this could lead to growth of Aspergillus, which produces the carcinogenic fungus aflatoxin, which is usually found on crops and which is also linked to liver cancer. More work is needed to make these associations clearer, but what is known is that the distribution of disease is changing as the climate changes over time.

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