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Illicit Tattoos and Piercings Increase Risk of Hepatitis C

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

Early this month, police in Pulaski, Virginia arrested four men for unlicensed tattooing – a misdemeanor offense with a fine of $2,500 and a maximum penalty of one year in jail. The investigation into the illegal tattooing operations began in May 2017, when police received a warning from the Pulaski County Health Department (PDHD) of a rapid increase in the number of new Hepatitis C (HCV) infections in patients who had recently received a tattoo in the area surrounding Meadowview Apartments near the 800 block in Pulaski (WDBJ 7, 2017).

While tattoos and piercings were relatively uncommon during the 1980s, the less conservative 1990s gave birth to a rise in the popularity of both. Now, nearly 4 in 10 people born after 1980 have a tattoo, and 1 in 4 have a piercing in a location other than an earlobe (Mercer, 2017). While most people have their tattoos and piercings done by licensed professionals, the high cost of body art leads many people to seek out less reputable, unlicensed tattoos that can be done cheaply and off the books.

Makeshift tattoo artist

Photo Source: India Times

Others, still, manage to acquire their tattoos via even less professional means than that while in jail or prison. In late June 2017, authorities at the Bladen County Jail in Bladen County, North Carolina, found a makeshift tattoo gun after being told that three inmates received tattoos and that one of them had contracted HCV. Jailers then found that two other inmates received tattoos from the makeshift device, and they are now being tested for the disease (Donovan, 2017). Further complicating matters is that jailers are uncertain where the HCV-infected inmate contracted the disease in jail or was infected prior to being incarcerated. Screening for HCV is required during the intake process, but few jails follow this protocol.

Part of the reason why work from licensed artists is so expensive has to do with the safety regulations rightly put in place to avoid the types of infections faced by Pulaski residents. Proper cleaning, sanitation, storage, and tattooing procedures is supposed to be closely monitored by state health departments as part of the licensing process, which does drive up the cost of the practice. However, each state is left to its own devices when it comes to regulating body art. North Carolina, for example, has a law dating back to the 1990s that regulates tattoos, but fails to regulate other forms of body art (e.g. – branding, piercing), meaning that artists to provide those services do not receive the same level of scrutiny as tattoo artists (Mercer).

These safety issues exist in every state in the U.S. Public health officials in Fargo, North Dakota, recently issued a warning after people in the metro region contracted HCV and HIV through illegal tattooing (Filley, 2017). The allure of cheap body art is often the primary reason why people go to “this guy I know who does cheap tattoos.” Unfortunately, “that guy you know” likely isn’t licensed, and putting one’s life into his hands, regardless of the quality of the artwork, may result in longer-term consequences than just a bit of ink.



Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.



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