High incidence of asymptomatic syphilis in HIV-infected MSM justifies routine screening

Sex Transm Dis. 2009 Feb;36(2):84-5. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e318186debb.


Background: Recently, the incidence of syphilis has risen, mainly among men having sex with men (MSM), many of whom are coinfected with HIV. Current guidelines recommend at least yearly syphilis testing in this group. In this study, we assessed the yield of routine syphilis screening in outpatient HIV-patients.

Methods: From March through June 2003, syphilis serology was routinely performed in HIV-infected patients visiting our outpatient clinic. Serology was repeated six months later. Positive test results of the first episode were compared to historical test results (retrospective analysis). Test results of the second episode were compared to test results from the first episode (prospective analysis). Case records of all patients with a new infection were reviewed for symptomatic disease or testing because of syphilis contacts, versus asymptomatic disease.

Results: In the retrospective analysis, 1,105 patients were included. In 68 patients, 81 syphilis infections were identified, of which 33% asymptomatic. 77/81 infections were acquired between 2000 and 2003, resulting in a total incidence of 2.7/100 person years (PY) of follow-up, and 0.9/100 PY for asymptomatic disease. In MSM, the incidence rate was 4.6/100 and 1.5/100 PY respectively. In the prospective analysis, 1,010 patients were included. Seventeen patients, all MSM, had a new or recurrent syphilis infection, of whom 4 asymptomatic, accounting for a total event rate of 3.5/100 PY. In MSM, the event rate was 6.2/100 PY, with an incidence of asymptomatic disease of 1.4/100 PY.

Conclusion: Routine screening for syphilis identifies significant numbers of asymptomatic syphilis infection in HIV-infected MSM.

MeSH terms

  • Ambulatory Care Facilities
  • HIV Infections / complications*
  • HIV Infections / diagnosis
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology
  • HIV Infections / transmission
  • Homosexuality, Male*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Netherlands
  • Syphilis / complications
  • Syphilis / diagnosis
  • Syphilis / epidemiology*
  • Syphilis / physiopathology*
  • Syphilis Serodiagnosis
  • Treponema pallidum