It's a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver and cases are reaching epidemic proportions in New Jersey and nationwide.

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Part of the problem is those living with hepatitis C can go decades without experiencing symptoms and the increase in the number of cases is not recognized by the public at large. There are about 17,000 new infections each year.

Between 2.7 million and 3.9 million people live with the chronic form of the condition and about 12,000 die each year from liver disease associated with hepatitis C.

"There are many different reasons for the increase, but I think it correlates with recent recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about improving surveillance and testing for individuals who might be at risk for hepatitis C. The CDC recently recommended that all baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C along with people who are at-risk," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan. "Because more people are getting tested, it's a fact that more cases will be identified."

Hepatitis C used to be thought of as a virus that was common among intravenous drug users. That is no longer the case.

"The virus is spread by an infected person's blood. So, at-risk individuals include people who have a history of intravenous drug use. But, individuals who might have received dialysis, where their blood is run through different machines, are at-risk of getting infected as are individuals who have had blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992 when more stringent screening measures were implemented. People who have been treated for blood clotting problems are also at-risk, along with those who have HIV. So, the risk factors are much more broad than they used to be," said Tan.

How can you protect yourself from contracting hepatitis C?

  • Avoid direct contact with blood
  • Never share drug injection equipment
  • Use condoms when having sex
  • Get tattoos or body piercings from people who use sterile inks and tools
  • Do not use personal care items, such as razors, toothbrushes or anything that could have blood on it
  • Wear gloves when touching another person's blood.

A drug called interferon is used to treat hepatitis C. If the liver is severely damaged, a liver transplant may be recommended, which usually involves a long waiting list.

For more information, visit the state health website.