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Health & Pregnancy

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Your Baby Wants Body Art

Tattoo Who?!
WebMD Feature

Aug. 27, 2001 -- Ear piercing was once a rite of passage for girls -- the slumber party, the ice cubes, mom's sewing needle. But it's a new world out there. Hot role models like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys are inspiring younger and younger kids to ask their parents for navel rings, tongue studs -- and tattoos.

Some call it self-expression. Some say disfigurement. But the issues are larger than just style or rebellion.

There's a real health danger that parents need to know more about -- especially with tattooing.

People with tattoos are nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C, according to a recent study by Robert Haley, MD, chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas. His report appears in the March issue of the journal Medicine.

Hepatitis C is spread by infected blood and infected needles, which is the virus' connection with tattooing. Tattoos involve lots of needles making lots of sticks in the skin. Each stick carries potential for contamination -- and not just with hepatitis, but also HIV, the virus that causes AIDS -- if the needles and the "tattoo machine" are not sterilized properly.

"The scary thing about hepatitis C is that the virus can live outside the body -- in the environment -- for up to three months," Haley tells WebMD. One drop of blood on a telephone, a counter, a chair, a piece of equipment, can potentially contaminate someone.

Equally frightening: About 75% of people with acute hepatitis C will develop a chronic infection that attacks the liver, leading to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer at an early age.

Yet there are no symptoms early on. While treatments are available, they are costly and, to be effective, have to begin early in the disease process.

"People can have the virus for 10 years and not know it," says Haley. "In another 10 to 20 years, they likely will be dead."

Hepatitis C Already an Epidemic

Take it seriously, says Haley.

"There's a major epidemic of hepatitis C in this country, which most people do not realize," he says. "Parents need to educate their teenagers that [a tattoo] is more than just a pretty picture on their skin. They're risking a lifelong infection."

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