Correctional Services has overtaken the mining sector with more prisoners falling prey to tuberculosis than miners.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the prevalence of TB on mines was seven times higher than among the general population, but indications were that prisoners were increasingly becoming patients.
"It might even be higher than what we know it [the prevalence] to be in the mines," he said, addressing inmates at Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town yesterday.
According to figures from the Department of Health, there were on average 153481 inmates imprisoned between January and December last year countrywide. Of these, 6650 prisoners had TB, 4.3% of the prison population.
The highest prevalence of TB in jails was in the Western Cape, with 2237 of the 26195 prisoners (8.5%) either having contracted TB before being imprisoned or while in prison.
Correctional Services Minister Sbu Ndebele said it was well documented that, with the high levels of HIV, the threat of TB in prisons demanded attention.
Overcrowding did not help. Ndebele said as of March 1 this year, an additional 152550 inmates were imprisoned in the country.
Each month about 23000 of this number were released but 25000 new inmates took their place.
It cost the taxpayer approximately R8000 a month for the upkeep of each inmate.
However, the government has a plan.
Yesterday, Motsoaledi handed over six GeneXpert machines to the Department of Correctional Services.
The machines will be used to test new inmates on their arrival at prison to establish if they have TB, before they are allowed to share facilities with prisoners already serving time.
Inmates found to have TB would immediately start the six-month treatment.
As part of the new TB management guidelines, the saliva of every prisoner suspected of having TB, following an oral testing, would have to be tested twice a year.
One of the machines had been operating at Pollsmoor prison since the beginning of the month.
Motsoaledi said of the 735 inmates who had arrived since the beginning of the month, 165 of them were tested on suspicion. Of these, 21 were diagnosed and started treatment immediately.
Each person has the ability to infect 20 others within a year.
The intervention would potentially save 420 people.