Getting a tattoo, a bellybutton ring or even a pedicure can seem a great idea while on holiday, but you may end up bringing home something more sinister than just some body ink or brightly coloured nails.
Experts working in the area of hepatitis B (HBV) and C (HCV) are predicting a jump in the number of people contracting the viruses overseas because of the types of activities Australians are enjoying abroad.
While there’s a vaccine for HBV, there’s none for its hardy and virulent cousin HCV, which is often referred to as “the silent killer” because people can have no symptoms for years, even decades, until their liver has suffered severe, life-threatening damage, and even become cancerous.
“What we want all Australians to know before they head off on their overseas holiday is that any activity in which the skin is pierced can lead to infection with hepatitis – and, yes, that can include pedicures, tattoos and piercings, and even getting dental work done abroad,” Hepatitis Australia’s CEO Helen Tyrell says.
All that’s needed for the disease to be transmitted is for a microscopic amount of infected blood to be left on an instrument that pieces the skin or comes into contact with an open wound, she explains, adding the following warning: “Don’t engage in activities in which the skin may be pierced unless you’re sure the instruments have been fully sterilised.”
High risk in the Asia-Pacific region
While it’s important to be vigilant on home soil, it becomes vital when abroad, particularly in the holiday destinations that are popular among Australians, such as the Asia-Pacific region.
“In places like Bali, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, hepatitis C can be nine or 10 times more prevalent than at home, and this coupled with generally lower standards of equipment sterilisation in the averagetattoo parlour or where you get pedicures can greatly increase the risk of infection,” Tyrell says.
“People on holiday can be more likely to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to take part in more risky activities, like getting a tattoo, so what we’re urging Australians to do is pre-plan. If you want to get a tattoo or a piercing while you’re away, do your research so you can better know your risk. Ask yourself, does the place sterilise its equipment properly? Does the benefit really outweigh the risk?”
Research has shown that Australians have become increasingly likely to participate in activities abroad that heighten their risk of contracting hepatitis B and C, with almost half having taken part in at least one high-risk pursuit while overseas. Tyrell believes this is because many Australian travellers are unaware of the hepatitis B and C risks associated with what are now considered normal holiday activities.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that causes inflammation of the liver, and is spread through blood-to-blood contact. It’s considered a hardy virus; according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it can survive on surfaces at room temperature for at least 16 hours and up to four days. In contrast, the HIV virus only lives on surfaces for a few hours, while influenza viruses survive from a few hours up to a day.
You can’t get hepatitis C by living with, being near or touching someone with the disease. But while most Australian sufferers have acquired the virus from intravenous drug use, it’s worth noting that the disease can be transmitted by sharing run-of-the-mill contaminated items such as razors, toothbrushes and even nail clippers.
The disease isn’t discerning and affects people differently. While some will get rid of the virus without issue, about 15 to 20 per cent will getcirrhosis, a severe scarring of the liver that can take decades to develop, and a small number may end up with liver cancer. About 15 per cent of people living with chronic HCV don’t know they have it.
A cure is coming
Tyrell predicts that in the not-too-distant future, nine out of 10 cases of hepatitis C will be curable or it will be possible to prevent further liver damage. However, she admits the costs could be high – some reports suggest a six-figure sum per sufferer – if the new therapies aren’t subsidised by the government. The current cure rate for those with the most common yet difficult to treat strain of HCV is about 75 per cent in Australia.
“The hepatitis C treatments on the horizon are nothing short of miraculous and we can expect to see these available in Australia by the end of the decade,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean there’s room to be complacent in our prevention of the virus. “The treatments are phenomenally expensive, and the disease can have wreaked quite a lot of damage before diagnosis, so a potential cure isn’t carte blanche to take part in risky behaviours,” Tyrell adds.
She advises that anyone who’s taken part in risky behaviour either in Australia or abroad should talk to their GP about whether they need ablood test.
“I’ve been to too many unnecessary funerals”
Kerri-Anne Smith, 54, contracted hepatitis C 30 years ago from an infected blood transfusion. She was cured five years ago and is now a speaker for the Hepatitis NSW C-een & Heard program:
“I remember feeling the judgement of others when I was diagnosed with hepatitis C. People assumed I was obviously a drug user.
Whether someone is or isn’t, a person is more than their disease and they deserve to get the treatment they need without judgement.
I’ve been to too many funerals of people who didn’t get treatment – and all their deaths could have been prevented if they’d been treated.
Yes, there’s unfortunately still a stigma attached to hep C, but that should never put someone off getting tested or getting treated.
If you’ve engaged in risky behaviours – and that could be a backyard tattoo or piercing – and you’re worried, talk to your GP. The earlier you’re diagnosed the quicker that treatment can begin and the less damage to your liver.”
Hep C in Australia
- More than 233,000 Australians are living with chronic hepatitis C (that is, they’ve had the virus for longer than six months).
- Almost 1000 people die from hepatitis-related liver cancer each year in this country.
- Symptoms are vague and include mild to severe tiredness, loss of appetite, soreness in the upper right side of the stomach (under the ribs), increased moodiness and depression and joint pain. Many people experience no symptoms.