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Will changes in gay men's sexual behavior reduce syphilis rates?

Gray RT, Hoare A, McCann PD, Bradley J, Down I, Donovan B, Prestage G, Wilson DP

  • Journal Sexually transmitted diseases

  • Published 19 Mar 2012

  • Volume 38

  • ISSUE 12

  • Pagination 1151-8

  • DOI 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e318238b85d


Reducing rates of partner change and increasing condom usage among gay men are obvious targets for potentially reducing syphilis transmission among gay men.

We developed an agent-based stochastic model to examine syphilis transmission among a population of gay men, representative of gay men in Australia. This model was used to explore the potential impact of changes in sexual behavior over 1 month, 3 month, and indefinite time frames on syphilis epidemics.

Simulations of interventions showed that short-term reductions in rates of partner change and increased condom use would have negligible impact on the long-term trends of syphilis epidemics. If no interventions are introduced, then the model forecasts that the syphilis prevalence in the population could continue to rise, with an increase of 80% in the number of men infected with syphilis during the next decade. However, if changes in sexual behavior are maintained in the long-term, then syphilis epidemics can be mitigated. If condom use is sustained at 80% in partnerships that are HIV discordant or of unknown status, then the prevalence of syphilis is estimated to decrease by 9% over 10 years. Similarly, if partner acquisition rates decrease by 25%, then there will be a 22% reduction in syphilis prevalence.

Interventions promoting partner reduction or increased condom use would be ineffective in the short-term, and would have limited prospects for success in the long-term unless very large changes in behavior are sustained. Complementary social research indicates that such long-term changes in behavior are unlikely to be adopted, and therefore other intervention strategies need to be developed to reduce syphilis among gay men.