More than a third of the inmates in New Jersey state prisons and county jails could be carrying some form of hepatitis. And most of them likely have no idea.

A proposed New Jersey law advanced by an Assembly committee on Thursday aims to address this issue by requiring that state and county correctional institutions offer blood testing to inmates for hepatitis B and C, viral infections that attack the liver and are transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids.

"Around two-thirds of individuals with hepatitis are unaware they have it," said Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli, D-Mercer, a prime sponsor of the legislation. "As a treatable disease, half the battle becomes screening for it."

Convicts would have the opportunity to opt out of testing, which would be offered at the start of one's sentence.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who now heads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said upward of 37 of their clients who come out of state prison are infected with hepatitis B or C. If they were aware of the medical issue, he said, the proper treatment could get them cleared within six weeks time. At a minimum, he said, they'd know their risk to loved ones.

"When you're coming out of state prison ... you're not thinking about your hepatitis B or C screening program, or whether you have hepatitis," McGreevey said. "Until, candidly, your eyes are jaundiced and you begin to get sick and worn down. Hepatitis is not only a contagious disease, but it's a stealthy killer."

A report released in October by the New Jersey Reentry Services Commission said between 12 and 35% of state and county inmates are hepatitis carriers, while only 1% of the general population is affected.

John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, told lawmakers the organization is not opposed to the intent of the legislation. But it is concerned about the potential cost of the requirement for county jails, and the practicality of implementing the measure.

"Most prisoners at county jails are in and out, or processed, within 48 hours," Donnadio said.

In a statement emailed to New Jersey 101.5, the state Department of Corrections said it "proactively tests all individuals who have certain risk criteria for hepatitis C" during intake health screenings. Risk criteria link to CDC recommendations and take into sexual history, drug use, tattoos and age.

"Those who do not meet the above criteria can receive testing upon request," the department said. "The NJDOC is committed to ensuring the health and safety of those in our care."

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