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Thinking About Getting a Tattoo? Think Again

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Haley found that 113 patients had at least one tattoo and 22% of those patients tested positive for hepatitis C. "Only 3.5% of the patients with no tattoos had hepatitis C," he says.

The news about tattoos is welcomed but not surprising, says Thelma King Thiel, who runs the Hepatitis Foundation International, an educational-advocacy group based in Cedar Grove, N.J. Thiel's group sponsors Hepatitis Awareness Month in May.

"We say that anything that invades the body by piercing the skin is a risk factor," says Thiel. She says that as soon as she saw Haley's paper "I shot a copy right off to the CDC." Thiel and Haley would like the CDC to officially designate tattooing as a risk factor for hepatitis C.

The CDC, which does list tattooing as a risk factor for hepatitis B, has stopped short of linking tattoos to hepatitis C. It states simply that more research is needed.

Brooke Seckel, MD, director of cosmetic surgery at Boston's Lahey Clinic and an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, is an ardent opponent of tattoos. Seckel says the medical community was recently dealt a major setback when Massachusetts, which had banned tattooing, passed a law allowing tattoo parlors in the state. "Here we are supposed to be the bastion of medical science and we have just legalized this dangerous practice," says Seckel.

"Who is overseeing the process? We don't know if this equipment is properly sterilized. We don't know if the needles are disposed after a single use, says Seckel. "We don't allow nonmedical personnel to draw blood; why do we allow these people to pierce the skin?"

Macedonia, Ohio, tattoo artist Jerry Davis, 40, takes exception to Seckel's charges. Davis tells WebMD, "Dentists don't operate in hospitals. They learn all the necessary procedures for sterilization and disposal of hazardous materials. If they can learn it, who is to say that we can't learn it, too?"

Davis, who has operated a studio in the basement of an old schoolhouse for the last 15 years, says that he is interested in improving the image of tattoo artists and in improving health standards.

In his studio, where the walls are covered with thousands and thousands of tattoo designs, he points out that he has initiated some safety measures not required by Ohio law. For example, he insists that all his artists cover the tattoo machine -- he objects to the term tattoo gun -- in plastic to protect against blood splatter.

He says the entire tattoo machine cannot be placed in a sterilizer because it would be ruined. He does, however, sterilize the tubes that hold the pigment and the bar that holds the needles. He uses disposable needles "that are removed and disposed of in the presence of the customer."

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