LISTEN | 'We are leaving nothing to chance': prisons boss on diphtheria outbreak

342 inmates and 36 officials vaccinated after death at Pollsmoor

13 November 2023 - 15:21
By Sipokazi Fokazi
A Pollsmoor Correctional Centre prisoner died on November 5 after becoming infected with diphtheria. File photo.
Image: Supplied A Pollsmoor Correctional Centre prisoner died on November 5 after becoming infected with diphtheria. File photo.

Prisons boss Makgothi Thobakgale says at least 342 inmates and 36 officials have been vaccinated after an outbreak of diphtheria — now under control — claimed the life of an inmate at Pollsmoor Correctional Centre in Cape Town.

“We are leaving nothing to chance. Health education efforts to inform inmates, department of correctional services officials and service providers about the symptoms of diphtheria, the importance of vaccination, and preventive measures are being amplified,” the national correctional services commissioner said on Monday.

Health minister Dr Joe Phaahla last week confirmed the death of the 19-year-old inmate on November 5.

Thobakgale said inmates and staff were following strict hygiene practices such as regular handwashing, sanitising and wearing masks to mitigate the spread of the disease. Health teams were available to treat affected inmates.


“Our healthcare team is vigilant in monitoring the situation, and the infection prevention measures are for every individual in correctional facility to follow. The situation is calm and under control. No new cases have been reported in the past five days,” he said. 

About 54 inmates and 15 correctional services officials were identified as having been in contact with the deceased. Of the inmates, eight tested positive and 46 negative. Three officials presented symptoms of infection and were isolating at home. Provisional test results returned negative for the three and follow-up results are awaited.

Phaahla said the 19-year-old male showed symptoms of the potentially deadly infection, caused by strains of bacteria that produce toxins, on October 28 and was transferred to hospital for treatment. Thobakgale said he was initially transferred to Victoria Hospital and later died at Groote Schuur Hospital on November 5. 

Diphtheria is a contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection spread through contact with respiratory droplets or hand-to-mouth contact with secretions from an infected person’s mouth, nose, throat or skin, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Eight laboratory-confirmed cases of diphtheria have been confirmed at Pollsmoor since the inmate, initially detained at Medium A (B section) from December 22. He last appeared in court on October 17.

“When the inmate showed signs of not feeling well, the correctional services healthcare officials treated him and a decision was taken that he be transferred to an outside hospital. At the time, the inmate showed malaise and respiratory symptoms, hence the transfer to Victoria Hospital,” said Thobakgale.

On Monday the Public Public Servants Association (PSA), representing thousands of correctional officers, voiced concern about their members' safety at Pollsmoor.

“The PSA will closely monitor the situation ... The department is responsible for ensuring a safe working environment and the PSA has urged the department of correctional services to immediately take appropriate steps to prevent further spreading of this disease.”