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HIV Treatment May Increase Risk Of Contracting Syphilis

Update Date: Jan 18, 2017 09:54 AM EST

Taking antiretrovirals, the recommended treatment for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection may increase the risk of gay/bisexual men contracting syphilis, a new study says.

In a new study published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, researchers at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health have found that HIV drugs might inadvertently boost a gay man's susceptibility to the bacteria, Treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis. However, the study did not prove cause-and-effect.

The finding of the study might explain why new and repeat cases of syphilis in gay and bisexual men have increased significantly compared to other sexually transmitted infections (STI) over the past 10 years, the researchers said.

According to the Medical Xpress, the availability of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) for treating HIV has meant that the virus is no longer the automatic death sentence that it once was. It can control viral load, making it virtually undetectable and preventing the progression of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Because of this, the absence of the fear factor may have prompted higher rates of STIs as a result of risky and unprotected sex.

The reported cases of syphilis in the United States increased by 15 percent from 2013 to 2014 and another 19 percent from 2014 and 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. However, the rates of syphilis were 107 times higher among gay and bisexual men than among straight men.

It is not clear why rates of syphilis among gay or bisexual men should be higher than those of gonorrhea or chlamydia, especially as HAART boosts immune system activity, which means there is lower susceptibility to infections.

The researchers then reviewed on the impact of HAART on behaviorial and immune system change to come up with an analysis to explore which might affect the higher number of syphilis cases. They found that there's an interplay between behavioral change and immune system changes.

"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 prioritized," the researchers said as reported by WebMD.

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