Jaundice, hepatitis, and cirrhosis are three serious diseases that affect the entire liver and hinder its ability to repair itself. Therefore, they are life-threatening diseases. When a person has jaundice, there is a yellowish tint to the whites of the eyes and also to the skin of light-pigmented persons. Bilirubin is deposited in the skin due to an abnormally large amount in the blood. In haemolytic jaundice, red blood cells are broken down in abnormally large amounts; in obstructive jaundice, bile ducts are blocked or liver cells are damaged. Obstructive jaundice often occurs when crystals of cholesterol come out of solution and form gallstones. The stones may be so numerous that passage of bile along a bile duct is blocked, and the gall bladder must be removed.
Jaundice can also result from hepatitis, inflammation of the liver. Viral hepatitis occurs in several forms. Hepatitis A is usually acquired from sewage-contaminated drinking water. Hepatitis B, which is usually spread by several contacts, can also be spread by blood transfusions or contaminated needles. The hepatitis B virus is more contagious than the AIDS virus, which is spread in the same way. Thankfully, however, there is now a vaccine available for hepatitis B. Hepatitis C, which is usually acquired by contact with infected blood and for which there is no vaccine, can lead to chronic hepatitis, liver cancer and death.
Cirrhosis is another chronic disease of the liver. First the organ becomes fatty, and liver tissue is then replaced by inactive fibrous scar tissue. Cirrhosis of the liver is often seen in alcoholics due to malnutrition and to the excessive amounts of alcohol the liver is forced to break down.
The liver has amazing generative powers and can recover if the rate of regeneration exceeds the rate of damage. During liver failure, however, there may not be enough time to let the liver heal itself. Liver transplantation is usually the preferred treatment for liver failure, but artificial livers have been developed and tried in a few cases. One type is a cartridge that contains liver cells. The patient’s blood passes through cellulose acetate tubing of the cartridge and is serviced in the same manner as with a normal liver. In the meantime, the patient’s liver has a chance to recover.