HIV/Aids

Updated 18 January 2017

HIV drugs may boost syphilis risk

A new study finds that antiretrovirals may pose a risk to especially gay and bisexual men by making them more vulnerable to the bacteria that cause syphilis.

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Gay and bisexual men taking antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV infection may be at increased risk for syphilis, new research contends.

'Intriguing' theory

Based on a review of available evidence, the investigators concluded that the drugs may boost susceptibility to the bacterium that causes syphilis, although the study did not prove cause-and-effect.

Read: 5 people exposed to syphilis at hospital

The finding might explain why new and repeat cases of syphilis in gay and bisexual men have risen sharply compared to other sexually transmitted infections over the past decade, the researchers wrote.

The study team was led by Dr Michael Rekart, from the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver. The findings were published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.

The authors of an editorial that accompanied the study said the theory is "intriguing" and "warrants careful consideration". But the editorial also suggested that the increase in syphilis cases among gay and bisexual men may be due to other factors.

Read: 8 STIs you’ve probably never even heard of

"We are living in an era where [antiretroviral therapy] is being used to effectively treat and prevent HIV infection. To some extent this seems to have tempered the urgency to control other [sexually transmitted infections]. As history has shown many times over, that would be a costly mistake," said Susan Tuddenham, Maunank Shah and Khalil Ghanem, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

"Over the past 15 years, syphilis rates among [gay and bisexual men] have been rising unabated," Tuddenham and colleagues noted in a journal news release.

"If further investigations support a role for [antiretroviral therapy] in increasing susceptibility to syphilis, this will provide one more reason why screening, diagnosis and treatment of [sexually transmitted infections] in [gay and bisexual men] must be prioritised," the editorial concluded.

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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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