The connection between tattoos and hepatitis C virus (HCV) has long been suspected but never completely substantiated.
Tattoos and the connection to the disease were clouded by a perceived propensity to other risk factors, such as injection drug use. "Other studies did not exclude patients with other risk factors for hepatitis C," explains principal investigator Dr. Edmund Bini, "which made it difficult to assess the association between HCV and tattoos. The strength of that association surprised us."
Researchers in New York studied 3871 people, approximately half of whom were control subjects. Patients with HCV were more likely to have had one or more tattoos, and this remained so even after adjusting for age, sex and race/ethnicity.
Patients with tattoos but also with traditional risk factors for HCV -- injection drug use and drug transfusion prior to 1992 -- were excluded from the final analysis of the data of the remaining 1887 patients with tattoos and no other risk factors for HCV, patients with HCV were approximately three times more likely to have had tattoos. This connection was significant even after, once again, adjusting for age, sex, and race/ethnicity.
The researchers concluded that all patients with tattoos should be tested for HCV. "It helps to be able to identify patients early who are eligible for treatment," said Dr. Bini. This information will be further refined when they complete analysis of assessing the risk of having multiple tattoos, as well as whether the patient received the tattoo in the US or abroad.