Published: 07/21/2023

Prisons can be potent incubators for tuberculosis, one of the world’s top infectious killers.

Due to overcrowding, poor ventilation, malnutrition and inadequate health care, the infection transmits easily among incarcerated individuals, who may become ill and transmit TB in the community when they’re released. Yet the global burden of TB in prisons is not well understood or tracked by international health organizations. 

This large gap in knowledge and action is damaging global efforts to eradicate TB, said Jason Andrews, MD, an associate professor of medicine and global health faculty fellow. “Remarkably, and dismayingly, global cases of TB in prisons aren’t tracked and reported, and we haven’t had measures of the global burden until now.”  

Andrews, who has been studying TB in Brazilian prisons for more than a decade, and colleagues published a study in The Lancet Public Health in June. It provides the largest, most comprehensive global assessment of the rate of tuberculosis among incarcerated individuals. Pulling data from 150 countries, they found a high incidence of TB in prisons around the world and estimate that almost half of all cases go undetected. Globally, they found TB rates in prisons to be ten times higher than those in their surrounding communities. 

Andrews, who recently received a Stanford Global Health seed grant to study low-cost, effective methods for detecting TB and preventing transmission in an Indonesian prisons, discussed the study’s findings and why tracking and treating tuberculosis in prison is critical to combatting the deadly disease worldwide.