Proposal would require screening all N.J. prisoners for hepatitis B and C

Prisoners make clothing for the New Jersey Department of Corrections. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Prisoners make clothing for the New Jersey Department of Corrections. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey prisons and jails may have to offer blood testing for hepatitis B and C to all incarcerated, under a proposal scheduled for a hearing Thursday.

The state Department of Corrections has come under fire from some criminal justice and public health advocates who say its policy of targeted screening for the virus falls short.

“Hepatitis is a scourge. There is no denying that. But thanks to breakthroughs in medicine, it is now a curable scourge,” said Dr. Aakash Shah, an emergency room physician and the medical director of the nonprofit New Jersey Reentry Corporation.

“In order to cure it, however, you have to treat it. And in order to treat it, you have to screen for it,” he added.

Hepatitis B and C are transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids. People who share needles and men who have sex with men are at higher risk of contracting the virus, and rates of infection behind bars are especially high.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that while only about one percent of the general population has hepatitis C, between 12% and 35% of prisoners are likely infected with the virus, which can cause liver disease and death.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections says it screens prisoners with certain risk factors for hepatitis C, taking into account things like sexual history, IV drug use, tattoos, and birth date. Prisoners who do not meet any of the criteria can request to be tested.

“NJDOC is committed to ensuring the health and safety of those in our care,” said state Department of Corrections spokesperson Liz Velez.

But public health experts say that approach could neglect to identify countless cases in prisons. Neighboring states including New York and Pennsylvania screen all prisoners except for those who opt out.

Under the proposed legislation, which is scheduled for a hearing in the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, all prisons and jails in the state would have to offer to screen everyone for the virus, unless someone opted out.

Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, D-Camden County, said the legislation he sponsored would improve health outcomes behind bars and lower costs.

“The cost that ultimately ripples not just to the life of those that suffer from the disease, but also the cost to the budget in uncompensated care and into our emergency room and hospital community, is something that we think we can address,” Greenwald said.

The proposal comes a few weeks after the NJRC released its report, which recommended that the state test all prisoners for hepatitis B and C and provide treatment for those who test positive.

Hepatitis A, a rarer and less deadly strain of the virus, has been the cause of an ongoing outbreak across New Jersey. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, hepatitis A has sickened 531 people since last December, including 144 cases in Camden.

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