Be Smart

In an Effort to Prevent HCV, One Campaign Is Educating Youth on Body Art Risks
by Larry Buhl

In the U.S., an estimated thirty-six percent of people under thirty years-old have tattoos. During tattooing, the skin is punctured up to 150 times a second in order to inject color pigments, leaving the customer at risk for blood-borne diseases including HIV and hepatitis C (HCV). According to the CDC, major research studies have not shown HCV to be spread through licensed, commercial tattooing facilities.

However, poor infection-control practices during tattooing or piercing can put people at risk for HCV, HIV, and other infectious diseases. That’s because tattooing instruments come in contact with blood and bodily fluids and infections may be transmitted if instruments are used on more than one person without being sterilized or without proper hygiene techniques. In addition, tattoo dyes are not kept in sterile containers and may play a carrier role in transmitting infections.

A not-uncommon scenario is a young person getting a tattoo in someone’s home or garage, or drinking and getting a tattoo without asking questions about safety. An educational campaign jointly sponsored by the University of California Davis Cancer Center and Sacramento State University is an attempt to avert such a scenario by warning college students about the risks of contracting HCV and other viruses from tattoos and body piercing in unregulated settings.

The multimedia campaign, called “Be Smart With Body Art,” was launched late last year with a Web site and a YouTube video. The program’s organizers distribute postcards and posters with the five questions to ask and what to observe when getting a tattoo or body piercing. The focus for the first year has been on California, where more than 22,000 postcards and 1,000 posters have been distributed to college/university campuses. Organizers are planning to make it national.

The “Be Smart” campaign was created in response to a survey that showed students knew little about HCV and how it is transmitted, according to Marlene M. von Friederichs-Fitzwater, a faculty member of UC Davis School of Medicine and director of the UC Davis Cancer Center Outreach Research and Education Program. She tells A&U that many customers don’t know that body art parlors are unregulated businesses in California and many other states.

“In our study prior to developing the campaign, we learned that college students and young adults have misperceptions about having been vaccinated, that it’s a mild temporary illness and there is a cure,” von Friederichs-Fitzwater says.

The campaign is not to discourage tattoos or piercing, but to encourage customers to make intelligent decisions and not act on the spur of the moment. For example, the video asserts that just because a tattoo parlor uses alcohol, looks clean, and uses needles from a new package doesn’t mean that the virus isn’t there and not going to find its way into your tattoo. And there are other questions that many customers fail to consider, such as whether the razor used to shave the skin is sterilized. If a tattoo area is shaved with a razor full of the virus, it can possibly find its way into open pores or wounds.

The campaign is the first of its kind and size in the nation and could be a template for how to convey health-related information using a variety of media that speak to younger people. In their initial study, von Friederichs-Fitzwater and colleagues learned how college students and young adults preferred to receive health-related information:

• through simple, clear facts that they can use;
• delivered via the Internet, social networking sites and mobile phones;
• and delivered by healthcare professionals (versus celebrities, athletes,
and peers).

The campaign is using the Internet, Facebook, and college events such as health fairs and dormitory meetings to spread awareness. Campaign organizers are also developing a mobile phone app with the five questions. Aside from a few outreach campaigns focusing on needle-exchange practices, there are no similar programs for preventing HCV right now, von Friederichs-Fitzwater says.

“I think education that empowers young people, doesn’t judge their behavior or stigmatizes them or their behavior, and allows them to develop the messages and delivery systems are the best strategies.”

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Larry Buhl is a freelance journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles.

December 2010