Routine screening for STIs urged
February 10, 2012 - As potent combination therapy for HIV (commonly called
ART or HAART) has greatly improved health and life expectancy among HIV-positive people, more
ART users are sexually active. Along with this increase in sex have come reports of increased
rates of common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as syphilis, gonorrhea and
Chlamydia, particularly among HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM) compared
to HIV-negative MSM.
One possible reason for this difference is that more HIV-positive men are having sex with
other HIV-positive men, a behaviour called serosorting. Specifically, these men are having
unprotected anal intercourse. Although serosorting among HIV-positive men helps to reduce
the spread of HIV, unprotected anal intercourse does not protect HIV-positive people
from serious health threats, including the following:
- hepatitis B and C viruses (HBV and HCV) - Co-infection with these viruses may initially
go unnoticed. Both HBV and HCV can cause accelerated liver damage in people who are
- LGV (lymphogranuloma venereum) - This STI can damage the anus/rectum, damage internal organs and trigger the early onset of arthritis.
- syphilis - The germs that cause syphilis can quickly spread to the brain and also damage other vital organs.
- HPV (human papilloma virus) - Some strains of HPV can cause ano-genital warts and others can cause abnormal ano-genital growths that in some cases can transform into cancer.
In addition to directly harming affected people, STIs can make HIV-negative people more
susceptible to HIV infection by causing sores, lesions or inflammation on or inside
Although ART does help protect users from AIDS-related infections, it does not fully
restore the immune system. As a result, perhaps the immune systems of some HIV-positive
people may not resist STIs as well as they should.
Much research on STIs among HIV-positive people has been done at clinics that screen
for and treat STIs. Perhaps this gives a skewed portrait of who has STIs. So a team of
researchers in the Dutch cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam performed a study with
participants from clinics that provided general care for HIV-positive people.
Researchers focused on MSM participants who were scheduled to make regular
clinic visits and were not seeking help specifically for STIs. However,
researchers found that high-risk behaviours were common and 16% of
participants were subsequently diagnosed with an STI. This study
underscores the value of regular STI screening for HIV-positive MSM.
Researchers recruited 616 HIV-positive men between October 2007 and June 2008. Participants
completed an extensive questionnaire and had blood drawn, which was later tested for these
- hepatitis B
- hepatitis C
Swabs were taken of the anus and throat and, along with urine samples, tested for Chlamydia
MSM who took part in the study tended to be older (46 years of age) than those who chose
not to participate. Participants tended to be taking ART and had a suppressed viral load
(less than 40 copies/ml) in the blood.
A total of 14% of MSM disclosed that they had symptoms suggestive of an STI. According
to their medical records, blood tests done in the past six months found that about 3%
had an STI, described by the researchers as "mostly rectal Chlamydia, urethral
gonorrhea or syphilis."
Common behaviours and other activities disclosed by participants were as follows:
- oral sex - 82%
- anal sex - 71%
- fingering - 56%
- rimming - 54%
- substance use during sex - 41%
The research team stated that "the use of sexual toys, the use of enemas before sex,
and fisting were less often reported; that is, between 10% and 20% [engaged in these
According to the researchers, almost "10% of [participants reported anal bleeding in
themselves or their sexual partners] during anal sex."
Claims of no sex yet infections found
In total, 100 men (or 17% of participants) disclosed that they had had no sex in the
past six months. Yet testing revealed that 10% of these men had STIs such as gonorrhea,
syphilis or Chlamydia.
Hepatitis B and C and syphilis
About 14% of men did not have immunity to hepatitis B virus (HBV). Review of medical
records suggested that most had been vaccinated against this virus but because their
immune systems were weakened by HIV infection, they did not produce protective
antibodies. This problem has been noted by doctors in other countries, including Canada.
Testing of men in the Dutch study revealed one case of new HBV and three cases of HCV
About 33% of men in the study had syphilis in the past. New cases of syphilis were found
in 35 men.
Behaviours and risk
Analysis found that the following factors were significantly linked to having an STI:
- being less than 40 years old
- having two or more partners in the past six months
- sharing sex toys with sexual partners
- having an enema before anal sex
Sex toys and enemas
Passing sex toys from one person to another without first cleaning or disinfecting them
can cause germs to spread from one person to another.
Researchers found that enemas were associated with an increased risk of STIs, particularly
in the anus. They stated that MSM who engaged in receptive anal sex "often take enemas before
having sex for reasons of hygiene." However, enema users are likely unaware that placing
water in the anus/rectum inadvertently damages the lining of the rectum. This damage to
the lining of the anus/rectum makes that part of the body more susceptible to
subsequent infections during unprotected intercourse.
Viral load and STIs
Having a viral load in the blood of 150 copies/ml or greater was significantly associated
with an STI being present. This is not surprising because STIs can cause inflammation and
activate and inflame the immune system. However, this activation has the inadvertent
effect of making cells of the immune system more susceptible to HIV infection. As
more cells are infected during periods of heightened immune activation, such as
during an STI, more HIV is produced and viral load goes up. After successful
treatment for an STI, HIV viral load should subside among people who are taking ART.
Screening for STIs
In closing their report, the Dutch team encouraged doctors to conduct routine screening
of their HIV-positive MSM patients for STIs. Moreover, they noted that such screening
should not be restricted only to men who disclose that they are sexually active or
who engage in high-risk behaviours. This is important because another research
team in San Diego has also documented the presence of anal and rectal STIs
among HIV-positive men who denied that they engaged in unprotected anal intercourse.
Screening and treating STIs improves personal health, stops STIs from spreading and may
help reduce the transmission of HIV.
-Sean R. Hosein
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CATIE-News is written by Sean Hosein, with the collaboration of other members of the
Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, in Toronto.
From Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE). For more information visit CATIE's Information Network at http://www.catie.ca
Source: CATIE: CANADIAN AIDS TREATMENT INFORMATION EXCHANGE