South African health officials said Sunday they are searching for 19 tuberculosis patients who had fled treatment, and thus risked spreading the deadly disease, SAPA news agency reported.
They raised the alarm after the patients escaped from the Jose Pearson TB hospital in Port Elizabeth, in Eastern Cape Province on Saturday.
They overpowered security guards there after having been refused permission to leave, said the province's health department spokesman, Sizwe Kupela, SAPA reported. A team was already out looking for the escapees, he added.
"We have sent people in to investigate what happened at the hospital... anyone who may have assisted in their escape will be dealt with," he said.
"We appeal to these patients to return to the hospital as they need to take their proper medication and look after themselves."
The failure of people to complete their treatment leads to more dangerous, drug-resistant strains of what is already a deadly disease. Direct transmission from person to person can also lead to tougher strains of the disease.
South Africa last March launched a four-million-dollar programme to track down tuberculosis patients who have defaulted treatment.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said then that all South Africa's nine provinces had established TB tracer teams of nurses and community health workers to follow up on patients who had defaulted treatment.
The country is desperately trying to curb its heavy caseload of TB.
With more than 340,000 South Africans infected, patients defaulting from treatment have developed multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extreme drug resistant (XDR) TB.