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Pamela Anderson Says She Has Hepatitis C


WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

March 21, 2002 -- Former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson announced yesterday that she is being treated for hepatitis C, a potentially deadly liver disease. She says she was infected by sharing a tattoo needle with her ex-husband, rock musician Tommy Lee. Though Anderson says Lee has the disease, he has not confirmed it.

So how can you satisfy your desire for a tattoo and assure that you don't contract hepatitis or other deadly diseases?

People with tattoos are nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C, according to a study by Robert Haley, MD, chief of epidemiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. His report appears in the March 2001 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.

About 75% of people infected with hepatitis C will develop a long-term infection that attacks the liver, leading to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer at an early age.

It may take 10-20 years before symptoms show up after becoming infected. Though treatments are available, they are costly and, to be effective, have to begin early in the disease process.

The crux of the problem, says Haley, is sterilization practices in tattoo shops.

By and large, tattoo artists and shops are not required -- by state or local governments -- to follow the same sterile operating practices as other operations that use needles, like hospitals and doctor's offices.

"It's a difficult situation," says Dennis Dwyer, executive director of the Alliance for Professional Tattoo Artists (APT), an organization that educates the public and tattoo practitioners about infection control procedures.

APT is the tattoo industry's attempt at self-monitoring, says Dwyer.

"Many people are trying their best to provide safe tattooing. But this industry has a lot of nonconformists," he says "Even if health departments or cities passed laws, they would not be able to catch up with 'Johnny Tabletop' at the flea markets."

Myrna Alexander, EdD, RN, nurse-turned-tattoo expert, says she has seen some clean, top-notch tattoo shops.

Alexander is a nursing professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and has had her eye on the tattoo industry for about 10 years. She has also written a study looking at the adolescent tattooing scene.

"There are some very reputable tattoo artists out there," Alexander tells WebMD. "They work hard, and their studios are as clean as medical clinics. They do a good job because they believe what they are doing is art. The problem is, there are many who don't."

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