Syphilis and HIV co-infection. Epidemiology, treatment and molecular typing of Treponema pallidum

Kirsten Salado-Rasmussen
Danish Medical Journal 2015, 62 (12): B5176
The studies included in this PhD thesis examined the interactions of syphilis, which is caused by Treponema pallidum, and HIV. Syphilis reemerged worldwide in the late 1990s and hereafter increasing rates of early syphilis were also reported in Denmark. The proportion of patients with concurrent HIV has been substantial, ranging from one third to almost two thirds of patients diagnosed with syphilis some years. Given that syphilis facilitates transmission and acquisition of HIV the two sexually transmitted diseases are of major public health concern. Further, syphilis has a negative impact on HIV infection, resulting in increasing viral loads and decreasing CD4 cell counts during syphilis infection. Likewise, HIV has an impact on the clinical course of syphilis; patients with concurrent HIV are thought to be at increased risk of neurological complications and treatment failure. Almost ten per cent of Danish men with syphilis acquired HIV infection within five years after they were diagnosed with syphilis during an 11-year study period. Interestingly, the risk of HIV declined during the later part of the period. Moreover, HIV-infected men had a substantial increased risk of re-infection with syphilis compared to HIV-uninfected men. As one third of the HIV-infected patients had viral loads >1,000 copies/ml, our conclusion supported the initiation of cART in more HIV-infected MSM to reduce HIV transmission. During a five-year study period, including the majority of HIV-infected patients from the Copenhagen area, we observed that syphilis was diagnosed in the primary, secondary, early and late latent stage. These patients were treated with either doxycycline or penicillin and the rate of treatment failure was similar in the two groups, indicating that doxycycline can be used as a treatment alternative - at least in an HIV-infected population. During a four-year study period, the T. pallidum strain type distribution was investigated among patients diagnosed by PCR testing of material from genital lesions. In total, 22 strain types were identified. HIV-infected patients were diagnosed with nine different strains types and a difference by HIV status was not observed indicating that HIV-infected patients did not belong to separate sexual networks. In conclusion, concurrent HIV remains common in patients diagnosed with syphilis in Denmark, both in those diagnosed by serological testing and PCR testing. Although the rate of syphilis has stabilized in recent years, a spread to low-risk groups is of concern, especially due to the complex symptomatology of syphilis. However, given the efficient treatment options and the targeted screening of pregnant women and persons at higher risk of syphilis, control of the infection seems within reach. Avoiding new HIV infections is the major challenge and here cART may play a prominent role.

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