Brief Report: Syphilis Coinfection Is Not Associated With an Increased Risk of Virologic Failure Among HIV-Positive Men Who Have Sex With Men on Antiretroviral Therapy

J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 2019 Apr 15;80(5):585-589. doi: 10.1097/QAI.0000000000001962.


Background: Incidence of syphilis continues to increase among HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM) in Ontario. Our objective was to determine the effect of acute syphilis on virologic failure (VF) among virally suppressed HIV-positive MSM taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) and determine if the relationship is confounded by drug use.

Setting: The OHTN Cohort Study is a voluntary cohort of people receiving HIV care in Ontario. Syphilis and viral load (VL) data were retrieved via linkage with the provincial laboratory.

Methods: Analyses included 2632 MSM from 2008 to 2015, on ART, with ≥1 questionnaire and 2 consecutive VL of <50 copies per milliliter 6 months apart. VF was defined as (1) VL of ≥1000 copies per milliliter or (2) 2 consecutive VLs of ≥200 copies per milliliter ≥1 month apart. We modeled acute syphilis as a time-varying covariate on VF using Poisson regression. Time-varying drug use was assessed for confounding using an iterative process where potential confounders were removed and then reintroduced into the model. Our model allowed for repeat observations using generalized estimating equations.

Results: VF incidence was 3.5 per 100 person-years [95% confidence interval (CI): 3.4 to 4.2]. The rate ratio for VF for acute syphilis was 1.5 (95% CI: 0.9 to 2.4) in the unadjusted model; 1.6 (95% CI: 1.0 to 2.4) in the model adjusted for age, education, region, and income; and 1.2 (95% CI: 0.7 to 1.9) in the final model with additional adjustment for drug use.

Conclusions: Acute syphilis was not associated with VF among virologically suppressed MSM on ART. Consequently, ART may still reduce HIV transmission risk to sexual partners.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-HIV Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Coinfection / drug therapy*
  • Coinfection / microbiology
  • Coinfection / virology
  • HIV Infections / complications*
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • Homosexuality, Male / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Ontario
  • Risk Factors
  • Syphilis / complications*
  • Syphilis / virology
  • Treatment Failure
  • Viral Load / drug effects


  • Anti-HIV Agents

Grant support