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.
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."
In Atlanta, Sacred Heart Tattoo shop was voted as "the best in the city" in a local survey. "Ask me anything," says owner and tattoo artist Chris Clark.
How can you know if a tattoo shop is safe?
- Ask questions about sterilization procedures, says Clark. "If people really want to see the autoclave, the sterile room, the biohazard room, we'll show them. We'll explain how the autoclave works."
- Make sure the shop is APT certified. The APT offers eight-hour courses on blood-borne pathogens, safety, and prevention procedures. Since many cities and states do not require city certification, APT certification is the only way to ensure sterile operating procedures, says Clark.
To combat hepatitis C and other similar germs, APT-member tattoo artists are taught to autoclave their equipment, use individual portions of ink and lubricant, and dispose of used needles according to federal guidelines set up by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. They also use EPA-registered "virucidals" to clean their stations in between clients. For more information about these procedures, check out "Basic Guidelines for Getting a Tattoo" at the APT web site, www.safetattoos.com.
- Ask to see the monthly reports of autoclave tests -- called "spore tests" -- an indication the sterilization equipment is working properly.
If tattoo artists won't talk about these things, "get out of there," says Clark.
Other ways to get infected with hepatitis C include:
- Sharing needles for injection drug use.
- Being born to a mother with HCV infection.
- Getting a blood transfusion from someone with HCV infection. Before 1992, blood could not be tested for HCV. Since 1992, all blood donated in the U.S. gets tested for the virus. If you had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before June 1992, ask your doctor about being tested for HCV.
- It's possible to get HCV from someone you live with if you share items such as razors or toothbrushes that might have had his/her blood on them.
- Rarely, a person can get HCV from having unprotected sex with an infected person. This is more likely to happen if the infected person also has another sexually transmitted disease. You cannot get HCV from kissing or shaking hands with an infected person.
A drug called interferon is used to treat hepatitis C. A new form of interferon, called peg-interferon, works even better. When this form of interferon is combined with another drug called ribavirin, up to 50% to 60% of people can be cured.
Treatment for hepatitis C can take the better part of a year. It's no walk in the park: the treatment usually makes people feel like they have a bad case of the flu. It can even make your hair fall out. These effects go away after treatment. Your doctor usually can tell after a few weeks whether the treatment is working.
With reporting by Jeanie Davis