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Clinic to treat hepatitis victims

March 30, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

With more than 800 confirmed cases of hepatitis C in Washington County, the Health Department plans to open a clinic at Elgin Station Community Center in Hagerstown to treat those with the disease, which is caused by a virus, Health Officer William Christoffel said.

Christoffel said hepatitis C, which causes liver disease and can be fatal, is a growing threat in the county and the nation.

He estimated that 803 cases of hepatitis C have been confirmed in Washington County in the last several years.

The Washington County Health Department is in the planning stages of setting up the hepatitis C clinic, which is expected to open by July 1 or Aug. 1, Christoffel said.

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The clinic would be the second one in the state, he said. Frederick, Md., has a hepatitis C clinic.

Hepatitis C is spread by contact with the blood of an infected person, such as through sharing drug needles, through birth, blood transfusions, unprotected sex and through unsanitary tattoo and body piercing practices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Christoffel said, for example, that a person getting a tattoo might not be safe from contracting hepatitis C, even though the tattoo parlor uses new or clean needles. He said some tattoo artists may reuse ink that had been used on an infected person, potentially spreading hepatitis C to others.

"My strong recommendation is that no one gets tattoos," he said. "You're making yourself vulnerable."

Shayne Foy, owner of Temple Art Tattoo Studio on North Potomac Street in Hagerstown, said he believes claims that getting a tattoo is a common way of contracting hepatitis C are overblown.

"It's a huge exaggeration," Foy said.

He said it's possible that someone may get the disease if a careless tattoo artist reuses ink or dirty needles, but that reputable parlors would never do so.

"If somebody's responsible and knows what they're doing, there's no risk whatsoever," Foy said.

Foy said the needles and ink he uses are thrown away after a customer is tattooed and are not reused.

"There's very clean techniques in the business that people have to abide by," he said.

He said he thought the number of hepatitis C cases in the county was high because of intravenous drug use among residents and because the state prisons are here.

Christoffel said he didn't know whether the 803 confirmed cases in the county included statistics from the state prisons because he was away from the office and didn't have that information on hand.

Christoffel said it usually takes 10 to 20 years before a person starts showing symptoms of hepatitis C, and that person may spread the disease to others without knowing he or she has it.

"Before the blood is tested, an individual could have had it and passed it on," he said.

Most of the reported cases of hepatitis C in Washington County involve people in their 40s, because of the length of time it takes before symptoms show up, Christoffel said.

"Their risky behavior probably occurred when they were in their 20s or their teens," he said.

Some signs of hepatitis C are jaundice, fatigue, dark urine, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and nausea, according to the CDC.

The disease may trigger clinical depression, Christoffel said.

About 3.9 million Americans have been infected with hepatitis C nationwide, according to the CDC.

With the proper treatment, hepatitis C patients can slow or stop the disease from further damaging their livers, Christoffel said.

"You actually never get rid of the disease, but you can control the disease," he said.

Treatment may consist of drug therapy and lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet and giving up alcohol.

Earlier this year, Christoffel recommended to the Hagerstown City Council that tattoo and body piercing businesses be required to have a physician or an osteopath supervising when a customer received a tattoo.

He said national studies have shown a link between tattoos and the spread of hepatitis C.

City Council members said they were uncomfortable with the proposal, because it essentially would ban tattoo parlors from the city.

When asked at the time, Christoffel said there was no evidence that tattoos or body piercings have contributed to cases of confirmed hepatitis C in Washington County.

He said Monday that because of the high number of cases in Washington County, an assumption could be made that there is a link between the spread of hepatitis C and tattoos.

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