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Transmission

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus. Transmission of hepatitis C may only occur when the blood of an infected person enters the bloodstream of another person.

The point of entry for infected blood can be a fresh cut or broken or punctured skin. The hepatitis C virus cannot penetrate unbroken skin and is killed by the digestive juices in the stomach if it is swallowed.

Injecting drug use 

HIGH RISK 

Injecting equipment includes needles, syringes, spoons, swabs, tourniquets, water and filters. Sharing injecting equipment is the most common way of becoming infected in Australia. Around 80% of infections in Australia have resulted from the sharing and re-using of injecting equipment and currently around 90% of new infections occur this way. In situations where people are injecting, small amounts of blood may be present on a person’s finger, on a tourniquet, or on a bench top or tabletop, and transmission may occur even if people do not share or re-use needles. 

Body art and piercing 

MEDIUM - HIGH RISK 

Body art and piercing procedures are not always carried out under sterile conditions and although single-use needles are now common, dye and dye tubs (inkpots) may be re-used for multiple customers. If you get a non-professional tattoo or piercing in a juvenile detention centre, prison, or by a backyard operator your chance of becoming infected with the hepatitis C virus is very high. The equipment they use is often not clean and has nearly always been used on other people before your turn.

Mother to baby

LOW RISK 

Around 5% of babies may acquire the virus from a mother who has hepatitis C.  The hepatitis C virus does not appear to pass through the placenta during pregnancy. The risk of transmission occurs during the birthing process when the mother’s blood is present and there is the possibility of a skin injury to the baby, allowing blood-to-blood contact and therefore transmission to potentially occur.

Needle stick injury in a helath care setting

LOW RISK 

These occur mainly in occupational settings such as hospitals and clinics, where handling bloody items may also present a risk. Overall the risk of acquiring hepatitis C from needle-stick (or sharps) injury in a health care setting is around 3%. This risk depends on a number of factors, such as the size of the needle and the depth of penetration achieved. Health care and custodial workers are advised to take infection control precautions at all times and should consider being vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.

Needle stick injury in a non-health care setting 

EXTREMELY LOW RISK 

Experiencing a needle stick injury while picking up rubbish or stepping on a used needle in a public place, such as a street, a park or a beach, is regarded as very unlikely as a source of transmission of hepatitis C. Worldwide as of January 2008 there have been three (3) documented cases* of hepatitis C transmission via community needle stick injury.  

* Needle-stick injury in a non-health care setting
Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology (2007) Volume: 22, Issue: 11, Pages: 1882-1885
Clin Infect Dis. (2005) 41 (1): 129-130. 

Sexual transmission

EXTREMELY LOW RISK 

Recent international studies have shown that hepatitis C is not a sexually transmissible infection (STI). Levels of the virus found in bodily fluids usually exchanged during sex such as semen, saliva and vaginal secretions, are not high enough to be considered as posing a risk. For hepatitis C transmission to occur, blood from an infected person has to get into the blood stream of another person. As with any activity, caution should be exercised if blood is likely to be present during sex. For example, sex during menstruation, anal sex, abrasive sex that may cause bleeding, or if someone has a condition that involves sores or blisters in the genital region and there is a possibility that these may come into contact with a partner’s blood during sex.

Medical and dental procedures 

Performed in Australia: EXTREMELY LOW RISK

Performed Overseas: VARIABLE RISK 

Infection control guidelines, designed to prevent the transmission of blood borne viruses and other diseases, are strictly adhered to in medical settings in Australia. In some other countries a lack of resources, inadequate infrastructure, a lack of training, or a combination of these factors can create circumstances in which reducing the risk of transmitting diseases is not always possible. Undergoing medical or dental treatment in some countries may carry with it the possibility of acquiring hepatitis C.

Sharing of razor blades, toothbrushes, and other personal grooming aids

EXTREMELY LOW RISK 

Items used for everyday hygiene may present a possible transmission risk if blood is present. To minimise the risk of transmission within the home, it is suggested that people do not share razor blades, toothbrushes (due to the possibility of bleeding gums) and sharp personal grooming aids.

When wiping up blood spills, it is advisable to wear gloves and use paper towels and lukewarm soapy water (bleach can also be used to disinfect the area).