Response of latent syphilis or neurosyphilis to ceftriaxone therapy in persons infected with human immunodeficiency virus

M E Dowell, P G Ross, D M Musher, T R Cate, R E Baughn
American Journal of Medicine 1992, 93 (5): 481-8

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of ceftriaxone in treating latent syphilis or asymptomatic neurosyphilis in patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

DESIGN: Follow-up study of patients treated at two HIV-based clinics during 16 months from 1989 to 1991.

PATIENTS: Patients were those in whom a clinical diagnosis of latent syphilis or asymptomatic neurosyphilis was made, who received all recommended doses of antimicrobial therapy, and who returned for follow-up visits for 6 or more months.

RESULTS: Forty-three patients were treated with ceftriaxone, 1 to 2 g daily for 10 to 14 days. Thirteen underwent lumbar puncture before treatment; 7 (58%) had documented neurosyphilis (pleocytosis in 5, elevated protein levels in 6, VDRL reactive in cerebrospinal fluid [CSF] in 7), and 6 had documented latent syphilis (entirely normal CSF). The remaining 30 were said to have presumed latent syphilis. There was no relation between the diagnosis and the selected dosage of ceftriaxone. Response rates were similar in those who had documented neurosyphilis and documented or presumed latent syphilis. Overall, 28 patients (65%) responded to therapy, 5 (12%) were serofast, 9 (21%) had a serologic relapse, and 1 (2%) who experienced progression to symptomatic neurosyphilis was a therapeutic failure. Thirteen patients received benzathine penicillin for presumed latent syphilis; results were similar to those observed after ceftriaxone therapy, with 8 (62%) responders, 1 (8%) serofast, 2 (15%) relapses, and 2 (15%) failures. CD4 cell counts in responders were not different from those who failed to respond.

CONCLUSIONS: Even in the absence of neurologic symptoms, half of the HIV-infected persons who have serologic evidence of syphilis may have neurosyphilis. Although ceftriaxone achieves high serum and CSF levels, 10 to 14 days of treatment with this drug were associated with a 23% failure rate in HIV-infected patients who had latent syphilis or asymptomatic neurosyphilis. Three doses of benzathine penicillin did not have a significantly higher relapse rate and may provide appropriate therapy, at least for documented latent syphilis in persons co-infected with HIV. Studies comparing ceftriaxone with 10 to 14 doses of procaine penicillin are needed to determine the most cost-effective treatment for asymptomatic neurosyphilis or presumed latent syphilis in this group of patients.

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