Gay HIV-positive men are being warned about the dangers of contracting hepatitis C on the eve of Hep C Awareness Week.

Hep C is usually transmitted via blood to blood contact, and while this can happen during sex it is not classified as a sexually transmissible infection. The virus is not usually found in semen, saliva or menstrual fluid.

But new research suggests hep C is being transmitted through semen by people who are HIV-positive. It seems when there is a co-infection of HIV and hep C, the hepatitis has a much greater viral load than normal.

When you’ve got this co-infection it’s thought hep C becomes truly a sexually transmissible infection, Stuart Loveday, executive officer of the Hepatitis C Council of NSW, said.

Those at risk are positive men who have unprotected sex with other positive men.

This message has to be sent out to the HIV-positive community, because really you don’t want to get into a situation where you’ve got both HIV and hep C, Loveday said.

You’ve got the potential in those circumstances for the hep C infection to progress faster and at a worse level.

Loveday had heard of one positive man with hep C who developed serious cirrhosis of the liver within a year, when normally that would take between 20 and 40 years to develop.

There is the potential for far worse health outcomes if you get a co-infection of hep C on top of HIV.

There is a risk of hep C being transmitted during sex if there is blood to blood contact. This goes for women and men, but gay men particularly at risk are those classed as sex pigs -“ men who practise things like group sex, fisting and bondage.

Fisting was particularly risky if gloves were not used and there were cuts on the hand and inside the anus.

More than 250,000 people in Australia have hep C and most of them got it after sharing equipment used for injecting drugs. Loveday said there were around 10,000 new infections each year.

People who should get tested for the disease include those who have ever injected drugs, those who had a blood transfusion in Australia before 1990, those born in a country with a high prevalence of hep C, and those who have had medical procedures in a country with a high prevalence of the infection.

Symptoms can include tiredness, nausea and flu-like symptoms.

The theme of this year’s awareness week, which runs from 1 to 7 October, is Take Control, with the aim of educating hep C-positive people on how to manage the disease.

Hep C is not a death sentence, Loveday said, and people could lead normal lives with it if they cut back alcohol consumption, ate a balanced diet and reduced stress in their life.

About four percent of cases develop into chronic hep C, which can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer or liver failure.

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For more on hep C, visit www.hepcawareness.net.au or phone 1300 437 222.

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