Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
The number of acute Hepatitis-C cases is on the rise in North Carolina and between 2010 to 2015 the number of reported cases of acute Hep-C has tripled. Although it is a reportable disease under state law, it continues to go under-reported and underestimated. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has just identified five counties in North Carolina, three of which, Graham, Cherokee, and Clay counties, as being in the top 220 counties in the entire United States as having high prevalence of Acute Hep-C infections. With Macon County’s proximity to those counties, members of the Macon County Department of Public Health spoke to county commissioners during their monthly meeting pleading with them to help raise awareness of the issue on the state level.
The issue of unnecessary exposure to Hep-C through the sharing of needles, illegal tattooing and unregulated body art such as piercings and implants is an increased issue in the state and Macon leaders are working with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners to make the issue one of the association’s legislative goals for the upcoming year.
“Last week during the annual NCACC conference health officials from across the state spoke on the issue of unnecessary exposure to Hepatitis C and while our health department is leading the charge to bring awareness to this issue, other health officials agree that the problem is severe and needs to be addressed,” said Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “We will continue looking at the issue at the NCACC and hopefully bring it to the legislative goals conference in September to make it a priority to be addressed.”
In recent months, Macon County has seen a rise in illegal tattoo artists operating in the county and have invested time and manpower to ensure those establishments cease and desist and to work to find out if anyone who might have used the illegal tattoo establishments might have contracted Hep-C during the process.
“As the department has been working to address this issue, we have determined that other county health departments are experiencing similar problems,” said Jennifer Garrett with Macon County Public Health. “Given how common body art is today, and due to the high prevalence of Hep-C in WNC, an examination of the impacts on health and possible further regulation of these industries should be considered.”
Currently, individuals who are caught tattooing illegally, meaning they do not have the proper equipment and are not regulated and permitted by local health departments, are only charged with a misdemeanor which according to the health department hasn’t been an effective deterrent. Commissioner Paul Higdon asked if the high permitting fees charged by Macon County contributes to the fact that people don’t get permits and operate illegally. According to health department officials, permitted establishments are even willing to pay higher fees to ensure their clients are safe and that the fees haven’t been an issue.
When taking the issue to the state level, the health department’s concerns include penalties for operating without a permit not being stringent enough to discourage the practice and that the act of piercing and body modifications not being regulated or inspected although the practice often involves a needle.
Another significant concern is that although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that the tattoo industry maintain OSHA Exposure Control Plan for needle sticks, yet the standards are generally not followed or enforced.
The cost of treating Hepatitis C is also something health department officials want to address on the state level.
“If we were properly treating Hepatitis C in this state, it would cost $10 million a year,” said Sen. Jim Davis. “I think being proactive to reduce infections and prevent the disease from spreading is an excellent approach.”
Beale noted that legislative goal submissions are due by the end of September at which point the NCACC will prioritize concerns and decide their five main focuses for the coming year.