Background: Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may affect both the natural course of syphilis and the response to treatment. We examined the response to treatment with high-dose penicillin G in HIV-infected patients with symptomatic neurosyphilis.
Methods: Neurosyphilis was defined by reactivity in serum treponemal tests for syphilis, neurologic manifestations consistent with neurosyphilis, and a positive Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL) test on cerebrospinal fluid. We identified 11 HIV-infected patients with symptomatic neurosyphilis; 5 had been treated previously for early syphilis with penicillin G benzathine. Patients were treated with 18 million to 24 million units of penicillin G per day administered intravenously for 10 days. Cerebrospinal fluid was examined approximately 6 and 24 weeks after treatment, when the polymerase chain reaction and rabbit inoculation were used to detect Treponema pallidum.
Results: In four of the seven patients studied 24 weeks after treatment, the serum titers on rapid plasma reagin (RPR) testing decreased by at least two doubling dilutions, and four patients had reductions in the cerebrospinal fluid titers on VDRL testing or reverted to nonreactive results. In two patients there was no normalization or improvement in serum titers on RPR testing or cerebrospinal fluid titers on VDRL testing, cell counts, or protein concentrations. One patient relapsed with meningovascular syphilis six months after therapy. T. pallidum was detected by the polymerase chain reaction in cerebrospinal fluid from 3 of 10 patients before treatment, but in none of the 10 post-treatment specimens.
Conclusions: In patients with early syphilis who are also infected with HIV, therapy with penicillin G benzathine may fail, and neurosyphilis may develop. The regimen of high-dose penicillin recommended for neurosyphilis is not consistently effective in patients infected with HIV.