Treponema pallidum detection in lesion and non-lesion sites in men who have sex with men with early syphilis: a prospective, cross-sectional study

Janet M. Towns, David E. Leslie, Ian Denham, Rebecca Wigan, Francesca Azzato, Deborah A. Williamson, Darren Lee, Eric P.F. Chow, Christopher K. Fairley, Stephen R. Graves, Lei Zhang, Marcus Y. Chen

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28 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Syphilis transmission is increasing, and precisely how Treponema pallidum is transmitted sexually from person to person is unclear. We aimed to determine the frequency of T pallidum shedding from potentially asymptomatic sites and the stage of infection at which shedding is most frequent in men who have sex with men (MSM), who have been disproportionately affected by syphilis. Methods: We did a prospective, cross-sectional study in MSM recruited from Melbourne Sexual Health Centre (Melbourne, VIC, Australia). Men were eligible if they were aged 18 years or older, reported sex with men during the past 12 months, and had laboratory confirmed primary, secondary, or early latent syphilis, consistent with Australian definitions. Primary and secondary syphilis lesions were swabbed and non-lesion samples were collected via oral rinse, oral cavity swab, anal canal swab, urine, and semen. Samples were tested for T pallidum using PCR assays targeting polA (lesion and non-lesion samples) and 47 kDa (non-lesion samples only) gene targets. The primary outcome was the proportion of men with T pallidum detected from potentially asymptomatic sites—namely, the mouth, anus, urethra, and semen. Findings: Between Nov 30, 2015, and May 23, 2019, 246 MSM were screened for inclusion, of whom 200 had serologically confirmed early syphilis and were included in the study: 54 (27%) of 200 had primary syphilis, 93 (47%) had secondary syphilis, and 53 (27%) had early latent syphilis. T pallidum DNA was detected in 48 (24%; 95% CI 18·3–30·5) of 200 men by oral rinse or oral lesion swab, or both, of whom 24 had no oral lesions. Oral T pallidum detection was most frequent in those with secondary syphilis compared with those at other stages of disease (41 [44%] of 93 vs seven [7%] of 107; p<0·0001), and in men with rapid plasma reagin titres of 1/64 or higher compared with those with lower titres (37 [32%] of 117 vs 11 [13%] of 83; p=0·0026). T pallidum was detected by anal canal swab or anal lesion swab, or both, in 45 (23·0%; 95% CI 17·3–29·5) of 196 men with available samples, of whom ten had no anal lesion. Furthermore, T pallidum was detected in urine samples of 12 (6·1%, 3·2–10·3) of 198 men and in semen samples from six (12·0%, 4·5–24·3) of 50 men who provided samples. Among the 93 men with secondary syphilis, 69 (74%) had T pallidum detected at any site, and 24 (26%) had detection at two or more separate sites. Among the 54 men with primary syphilis, 49 (91%) had T pallidum detected at any site, and 11 (20%) had detection at two or more separate sites. Among the 53 men with early latent syphilis, four (8%) had T pallidum detected at any site and none had T pallidum detected at two or more separate sites. Interpretation: Unrecognised oral and anal shedding of T pallidum occurs in MSM with early syphilis, most frequently in those with secondary syphilis, suggesting secondary syphilis is the most infectious stage and that earlier detection and treatment of syphilis to prevent progression to the secondary stage might improve syphilis control. Future research is needed to ascertain the contribution of shedding of T pallidum from non-lesion sites to transmission of syphilis. Funding: Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1324-1331
Number of pages8
JournalThe Lancet Infectious Diseases
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021

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