London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 15-17 Tavistock Place, London WC1H9SH, UK. Electronic address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evidence indicates minimal hepatitis C (HCV) sexual transmission risk among HIV negative heterosexual partners. Limited HCV literacy has been demonstrated among people who inject drugs, yet there is a dearth of research exploring perceptions of HCV heterosexual transmission risk among this high risk population.
We conducted a qualitative life history study with people who had been injecting drugs for over six years, to explore the social practices and conditions of long-term HCV avoidance. Participants were recruited through London drug services and drug user networks. The sample comprised 10 women and 27 men (n=37), of whom 22 were HCV antibody negative. Participants were aged from 23 to 57 years and had been injecting for 6 to 33 years. Twenty participants were in long term heterosexual partnerships.
The majority of participants in relationships reported 'discriminate' needle and syringe sharing with their primary sexual partner. Significantly, and in tension with biomedical evidence, participants commonly rationalised syringe sharing with sexual partners in terms of 'risk equivalence' with sexual practices in regard to HCV transmission. Participants' uncertain knowledge regarding HCV transmission, coupled with unprotected sexual practices perceived as being normative were found to foster 'risk equivalence' beliefs and associated HCV transmission potential.
HCV prevention messages that 'add on' safe sex information can do more harm than good, perpetuating risk equivalence beliefs and an associated dismissal of safe injecting recommendations among those already practicing unprotected sex.