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Sex Transm Infect. 2004 Dec;80(6):509-11.

Lessons from the syphilis outbreak in homosexual men in east London.

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Ambrose King Centre, Barts and the London NHS Trust, Whitechapel, London E1 1BB, UK.



To describe the epidemiology, presentation, and diagnosis of early syphilis in 103 homosexual men in east London.


A retrospective study using data from KC60 returns, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) enhanced surveillance forms and case notes.


40 cases of primary (PS), 40 of secondary (SS) and 23 of early latent syphilis were identified, 33% co-infected with HIV. 41% had concurrent sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Pain featured in 35% of PS and itch in 13% of rashes. Dark ground microscopy (DGM), performed in 44 of the symptomatic cases, was positive in 37 (84%) allowing early management. Initial syphilis serology was negative in 15/40 (37%) cases of PS. 51% and 49% opted for parenteral and oral treatment, respectively. In 53/103 (51%) cases oral sex was the only risk factor. 86% of infections were UK acquired. Only 4% of contacts were seen.


This outbreak, reflecting the resurgence of syphilis across the United Kingdom, highlights several important points. Painful chancres and itchy rash are common presentations. DGM is a highly sensitive diagnostic tool. Initial negative serological screening tests are common in PS and sero-surveillance for 3 months is recommended. The high prevalence of concomitant STIs indicates ongoing unprotected sexual intercourse. Oral sex is a significant risk factor and is a distinctly "unsafe" practice. Conventional partner notification is ineffective. Other methods of screening of the at-risk homosexual population are warranted. Continued education is required to reduce STI acquisition in homosexual men.

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