Go big or go home: impact of screening coverage on syphilis infection dynamics

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Syphilis outbreaks in urban men who have sex with men (MSM) are an ongoing public health challenge in many high-income countries, despite intensification of efforts to screen and treat at-risk individuals. We sought to understand how population-level coverage of asymptomatic screening impacts the ability to control syphilis transmission.


We developed a risk-structured deterministic compartmental mathematical model of syphilis transmission in a population of sexually active MSM. We assumed a baseline level of treatment of syphilis cases due to seeking medical care in all scenarios. We evaluated the impact of sustained annual population-wide screening coverage ranging from 0% to 90% on syphilis incidence over the short term (20 years) and at endemic equilibrium.


The relationship between screening coverage and equilibrium syphilis incidence displayed an inverted U-shape relationship, with peak equilibrium incidence occurring with 20–30% annual screening coverage. Annual screening of 62% of the population was required for local elimination (incidence <1 case per 100 000 population). Results were qualitatively similar in the face of differing programmatic, behavioural and natural history assumptions, although the screening thresholds for local elimination differed. With 6-monthly or 3-monthly screening, the population coverage required to achieve local elimination was reduced to 39% or 23%, respectively.


Although screening has the potential to control syphilis outbreaks, suboptimal coverage may paradoxically lead to a higher equilibrium infection incidence than that observed in the absence of intervention. Suboptimal screening programme design should be considered as a possible contributor to unsuccessful syphilis control programmes in the context of the current epidemic.

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