A double-edged sword: does highly active antiretroviral therapy contribute to syphilis incidence by impairing immunity to Treponema pallidum?
AbstractBackground and hypothesis
Recently, the world has experienced a rapidly escalating outbreak of infectious syphilis primarily affecting men who have sex with men (MSM); many are taking highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) for HIV-1 infection. The prevailing hypothesis is that HAART availability and effectiveness have led to the perception among both individuals who are HIV-1 infected and those who are uninfected that HIV-1 transmission has become much less likely, and the effects of HIV-1 infection less deadly. This is expected to result in increased sexual risk-taking, especially unprotected anal intercourse, leading to more non-HIV-1 STDs, including gonorrhoea, chlamydia and syphilis. However, syphilis incidence has increased more rapidly than other STDs. We hypothesise that HAART downregulates the innate and acquired immune responses to Treponema pallidum and that this biological explanation plays an important role in the syphilis epidemic.Methods
We performed a literature search and developed a mathematical model of HIV-1 and T. pallidum confection in a population with two risk groups with assortative mixing to explore the consequence on syphilis prevalence of HAART-induced changes in behaviour versus HAART-induced biological effects.Conclusions and implications
Since rising syphilis incidence appears to have outpaced gonorrhoea and chlamydia, predominantly affecting HIV-1 positive MSM, behavioural factors alone may be insufficient to explain the unique, sharp increase in syphilis incidence. HAART agents have the potential to alter the innate and acquired immune responses in ways that may enhance susceptibility to T. pallidum. This raises the possibility that therapeutic and preventative HAART may inadvertently increase the incidence of syphilis, a situation that would have significant and global public health implications. We propose that additional studies investigating the interplay between HAART and enhanced T. pallidum susceptibility are needed. If our hypothesis is correct, HAART should be combined with enhanced patient management including frequent monitoring for pathogens such as T. pallidum.