Liver cancer among Mongolians among highest in the world: Is alcohol to blame?

Highest Incidents of Liver Cancer (2012)
(age-standardized rate per 100,000)


Mongolians have one of the highest rates of liver cancer in the world, with health officials saying that alcohol dependency emerges as a leading contributing factor.
Mongolian adults drink an average of three liters of pure spirits (such as vodka, both locally produced and imported) each year, despite heavy alcohol consumption being associated with a variety of adverse health and social consequences. These include cirrhosis, mental illness, several types of cancer, pancreatitis, and damage to the fetus among pregnant women.
Among the most dangerous of these is liver cancer. The liver acts to filter harmful substances from the blood, while making enzymes and bile that help the body digest food. It also converts food into substances needed for life and growth.
In our bodies, alcohol is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. It can cause cancer by damaging DNA and stopping our cells from repairing this damage. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified acetaldehyde formed as a result of drinking alcohol as being a cause of cancer, along with alcohol itself.
Acetaldehyde also causes liver cells to grow faster than normal. These regenerating cells are more likely to pick up changes in their genes that could lead to cancer. Mainly the liver breaks down ethanol and other cell types. Alcohol acts to manage these cells.
Therefore, having more than two drinks of alcohol each day can dramatically increase the risk of liver and other cancers. The risk of further illness steadily increases with the amount of alcohol that a person drinks.

Widespread access to alcohol

According to 2012 statistics released by the World Cancer Research Fund, Mongolia has the world’s highest rate of liver cancer per head of population. While men are statistically more likely to be affected, disturbingly, liver cancer remains the most common cause of death in both genders.
In 2006, Mongolia’s Ministry of Health, along with the World Health Organization and Center of Mental Health and Narcology conducted a joint survey under the theme, “Epidemiological study on prevalence of alcohol consumption, alcohol drinking patterns and alcohol related harms in Mongolia.”
According to the survey, Mongolia produces an average 4.9 million liters of spirits, 9.4 million liters of vodka, and 3.3 million liters of beer each year. An additional fifteen million liters of alcoholic beverages were imported into the country. Per capita consumption in Mongolia is estimated to be 9.03 liters of absolute alcohol per year.
In 2013, per capita consumption in Mongolia increased to 28 liters per year. Which means that Mongolians are at a high risk for alcoholism.
More recent surveys of alcohol production and sales in the country are hard to come by. Yet a 2004 report showed that there were 12 spirits factories, 173 vodka factories and 29 beer factories operating across Mongolia. Each province had at least one alcohol production factory, many of which produce some of Mongolia’s more traditional alcoholic beverages, such as fermented horse milk (airag) and distilled milk vodka (nermel).
Alcohol was available for sale at over five thousand outlets nationally (48 wholesale markets, 3,482 shops, 338 restaurants and 1,297 bars.) These statistics see alcohol availability (per capita) among the highest in the world.

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