Alcohol cost Frances friends, family, and career, and nearly killed her on more than one occasion.
- Figures from Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital show increased admissions of women to hospital with alcoholic hepatitis
- Liver inflammation is caused by excessive drinking
- Underweight women are particularly at risk, says one researcher
But it wasn’t a serious car accident, blood clots or near liver failure that stopped her from drinking.
Instead, she made the decision to quit in a quiet moment of contemplation.
“I just looked at the beer and thought, ‘What am I doing? This isn’t working,'” she said.
A year ago, the 46-year-old was one of a growing number of young women admitted to intensive care units with alcoholic hepatitis.
Her liver was also covered in scars and doctors told her she would die within months if she continued to drink.
“I kind of resigned myself to the fact that I was going to die,” she said.
What is alcoholic hepatitis?
Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by excessive drinking. Symptoms include jaundice (yellowing), nausea, fatigue and abdominal pain.
While alcoholic hepatitis has long been thought to primarily affect men, new research from Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital has found a surge in admissions for women with alcoholic hepatitis during the pandemic.
In the three years before the COVID-19 outbreak, 11 women were admitted to hospital with potentially fatal conditions. In the three years since the COVID-19 outbreak, that number has risen to 39 cases.
“In particular, it has become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic in younger women (to be diagnosed with the disease),” report author Alex Thompson said.
Researchers also found a spike in alcoholic hepatitis when comparing hospitalizations in other parts of the state.
Dr Thompson said Victoria’s hospitalization data showed the total number of monthly cases had more than doubled, from about 23 cases per month in 2010 to about 60 cases per month in 2020, with a sharp increase after 2020.
Dr. Thompson said that because of the link between being underweight and susceptibility to alcohol abuse, underweight young women were disproportionately affected.
“If you keep up with these people, you’re at higher risk of serious damage to your liver,” Dr. Thompson said.
While the figures represent the worst end of the drinking spectrum, experts fear they reflect the extent of the drinking problem across Australia.
Women were more likely than men to increase their drinking during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, with another study finding hazardous drinking levels among middle-aged Australian women were at their highest in decades.
Dr Thompson said: “If you drink more than 10 standard drinks per week, or regularly drink more than 4 standard drinks per day, you are at risk for alcohol consumption.”
A long history of alcoholism
Francis had been drinking since he was a teenager, a problem exacerbated by anxiety and depression.
By her twenties, she was drinking in the mornings and had already tried inpatient rehab.
At one point, she was drinking four liters of wine from a barrel a day.
Alcoholic hepatitis is usually thought of as a condition of heavy drinkers over a long period of time, but Dr. Thompson says it can be caused by “heavy drinking over several days” because everyone reacts to alcohol differently.
A disease that affects more men
Two-thirds of alcoholic hepatitis cases are in men, although studies show an increase in hospital admissions among women with the disease.
Dylan Allen died last year of alcoholic hepatitis at the age of 26.
His mother, Rachel Allen, said his liver developed inflammation at age 24, but “doctors never explained to us or him what terminal liver disease was.”
“The devastating impact alcohol has had on my son’s life has left him unable to socialize or hold a job,” Ms Allen said.
“Ultimately, he turned to drinking as a means of coping with his mental health, depression and loneliness.”
Ms Allen wants young people to know that alcohol has the potential to ruin lives.
“As his mother, I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure Dylan overcomes his addiction,” she said.
‘Despicable’ target for problem drinkers
According to the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), the research reflects rising rates of alcohol-related harm over the past decade.
Alcohol-related death rates in 2021-2022 are the highest in a decade, with the largest increases among women aged 45-64.
“We are seeing some trends that have become even more pronounced during and after the pandemic,” FARE CEO Caterina Giorgi said.
She said the foundation believed alcohol companies were taking advantage of the situation and targeting people with drinking problems.
“A lot of people don’t know that 35 percent of wine is sold to 5 percent of the people,” she said.
FARE’s research found that alcohol companies are increasingly using AI-driven databases to target online consumers based on their personal information, past purchasing habits and likelihood of clicking to purchase alcohol.
She added that in a digital environment of targeted advertising, people found it “really hard to escape” marketing from alcohol companies.
“We’re seeing alcohol companies behaving quite despicably, investing millions of dollars to help the most at risk.”
FARE is calling for better regulation of how alcohol is marketed and sold, including home delivery.
“Alcohol can be sold to people’s homes in as little as 20 or 30 minutes. We’re just not keeping up,” Ms Giorgi said.
Alcoholic Beverage Industry Australia says rates of hazardous drinking are falling across the wider population, with more than four in five Australians consuming less than two standard drinks a day.
More targeted treatment is needed
Frances said she had a happy childhood growing up in a middle-class family and was unaware of the long-term risks of drinking too much.
“It’s kind of scary, crazy, dangerous,” she said.
Frances has been sober for more than two years, during which time she has lost 50 kilograms, resumed her studies and reconnected with her family.
Her proudest achievement, she said, was being entrusted with caring for her four-month-old nephew.
But she feels she wouldn’t have been able to do it without a support group.
Dr. Thompson said there is a need for more women-specific treatment services.
“Most alcohol rehab services in residential redevelopment are unisex and it can be a challenging environment for women to enter these services,” he said.
Frances is now studying community service and hopes to help others going through the same thing.
“I can’t imagine being this happy without drinking,” she said.