Men’s Health: Got tattoos? Get tested for hepatitis C

Study finds a strong association between body art and the incurable liver infection

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Everyone who has a tattoo should be tested for the hepatitis C virus, according to researchers who found tattoos to be strongly associated with the liver infection.

Chronic hepatitis C infection increases the risk for liver scarring and cancer, but many people don’t experience any symptoms for years. There is no cure or vaccine for the blood-borne infection.

The association with tattoos held even among people without traditional hepatitis C risk factors such as being an injection drug user or having received a blood transfusion.

“The strength of that association surprised us,” says Dr. Edmund Bini, director of gastroenterology and hepatology research at New York University Medical Center.

The study involved nearly 2,000 people with chronic hepatitis C infection and 2,000 healthy people. Those with hepatitis C infection were more likely to be racial or ethnic minorities, injection drug users or recipients of blood transfusions before 1992, when the testing of blood donations became universal.

Patients with hepatitis C were also more likely to have had one or more tattoos (35 per cent versus 13 per cent). Even after the researchers excluded all people with a history of injection drug use or pre-1992 blood transfusions, people with hepatitis C were still more likely to have a history of tattoos (34 per cent versus 12 per cent).

The connection between tattoos and hepatitis C has long been suspected but never completely substantiated because previous studies did not exclude patients with other risk factors for the infection, Bini says. He recommends all people with tattoos get tested for hepatitis C. “It helps to be able to identify patients early who are eligible for treatment.”

He and his colleagues are now assessing the risks of single versus multiple tattoos, and the risks of having had the tattoo done in the U.S. or abroad.