Many people travel abroad for tattoos, piercings and cosmetic surgeries. Others don’t do enough research when opting for unreliable establishments in the cities where they live. Any procedure, no matter where it is performed, can carry a risk of injury and infection.
Anyone traveling abroad for cosmetic procedures should exercise caution – recent studies, for example, suggest that thousands of UK residents may have unknowingly contracted hepatitis C this way.
It is estimated that more than 170 million people worldwide have hepatitis C. Each year, approximately one million new infections occur.
In England, more than 70,000 people have hepatitis C in 2021 and many more may be infected without knowing it, as hepatitis C symptoms can take years to appear.
In Brazil, according to the Ministry of Health, it is estimated that 520 thousand people have hepatitis C, but still without diagnosis and treatment. By 2022, according to the ministry, 150,000 patients had been cured of the disease.
Hepatitis C can develop into a serious and fatal liver disease if left undiagnosed. When detected early, however, treatment is over 95% effective – which shows the importance of early diagnosis.
What is Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus that affects the liver. The virus is transmitted through contact with infected blood.
Transmission occurs mainly through contact with contaminated utensils, such as needles for recreational use of illicit drugs. In rare cases, hepatitis C can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse or from an infected mother to her baby during birth.
Around 80% of people who contract hepatitis C do not experience any symptoms. The remaining 20% experience a short-lived, flu-like illness – with varying symptoms that can include fever, headaches and muscle aches, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea and jaundice.
Symptoms can occur two to 12 weeks after infection with the virus. Those who have symptoms often do not realize the severity of the disease.
Some people are able to eliminate the virus without treatment. But up to 85% of infected people develop chronic hepatitis – when the virus remains in the body.
These people may not show signs of illness for years and often don’t notice it until more serious damage appears – which can take decades.
Hepatitis C is still treatable in its chronic form, although treatments have better results when applied earlier.
If left untreated for years, chronic hepatitis C causes serious liver disease.
Symptoms are jaundice, swollen abdomen and legs, bleeding or bruising easily, intense itching, loss of appetite and nausea.
Cirrhosis from the disease can also cause damage to the brain and nervous system due to the accumulation of toxins that the liver normally removes. This can cause concentration and memory problems.
It is estimated that one in five people with chronic hepatitis C develops a serious liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma. This is the second deadliest cancer globally, with a five-year survival rate of just 10%-20%.
Age, excessive alcohol consumption, other infections (such as HIV), and the strain of hepatitis C virus you are infected with can increase your risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma.
Risks of medical or cosmetic procedures
If sterilization procedures are adequate, the chances of contracting any infection are extremely low.
But if surgical instruments were used on someone with hepatitis C and were not properly sterilized, you will likely contract the disease. Inadequate sterilization also carries a risk of other diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis B.
Several studies have reported that tattoos done in non-professional settings, such as those done in prisons, carry an increased risk of hepatitis C due to inadequate sterilization.
Even tattoos done in professional studios can pose an increased risk if reusable needles are not properly sterilized between clients.
For piercings, the data is less clear.
Many studies have shown no increased risk of hepatitis C from piercings — but these studies did not ask participants whether they had gotten the piercing done at a professional studio or at home. However, cases of hepatitis C contracted through a piercing have been reported, as well as from exchanging piercing jewelry with an infected person – so it’s important to be careful.
Although data is limited, this risk is likely the same for cosmetic and dental procedures.
If proper sterilization practices are implemented and you see a licensed surgeon or dentist, your risk of contracting hepatitis C is very low.
Certain countries have higher incidences of hepatitis C – such as Egypt, Mali, Malaysia, Italy, Thailand and Mauritius. Certain strains of the hepatitis C virus may also be more prevalent in certain locations.
For example, the dominant strain of hepatitis C in Nigeria has a treatment success rate of 94-99%.
But in Thailand, the dominant strain is associated with rapid progression of chronic liver disease and worse treatment outcomes.
It’s worth paying even more attention if you plan to undergo any procedures when visiting these locations.
How to avoid?
If you perform any type of medical, dental or cosmetic procedure, ask about the process of decontaminating or sterilizing the tools and the company’s license to ensure it is registered.
Other medical procedures, such as Botox or fillers, are less strictly regulated. With any injectable, ideally this should be done by a medical professional – such as a nurse or dentist.
If you are having a procedure and are not sure if the products are safe, ask to see before unpacking. Sterile single-use needles are always sealed in a package.
Poor hygiene can also transmit hepatitis C, so check good practices such as washing your hands and changing gloves between clients. If in doubt, do not perform the procedure.
* Grace C Roberts is a virology researcher at the University of Leeds, in the United Kingdom.
*This article was originally published on the academic news website The Conversation and republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original English version here.