Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Prevalence of syphilis infection in different tiers of female sex workers in China: implications for surveillance and interventions

Xiang-Sheng Chen1*, Qian-Qiu Wang1, Yue-Ping Yin1, Guo-Jun Liang1, Ning Jiang1, Li-Gang Yang2, Qiao Liu3, Yu-Jiao Zhou4, Xi-Ping Huan5, Wan-Hui Wei1 and Baoxi Wang1

Author Affiliations

1 National Center for STD Control, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College Institute of Dermatology, 12 Jiangwangmiao Street, Nanjing 210042, China

2 Guangdong Provincial Center for Skin Diseases and STD Control, Guangzhou, China

3 Hainan Provincial Institute of Dermatology, Haikou, China

4 Guangxi Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, Nanning, China

5 Jiangsu Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Nanjing, China

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2012, 12:84  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-12-84

Published: 4 April 2012



Syphilis has made a dramatic resurgence in China during the past two decades and become the third most prevalent notifiable infectious disease in China. Female sex workers (FSWs) have become one of key populations for the epidemic. In order to investigate syphilis infection among different tiers of FSWs, a cross-sectional study was conducted in 8 sites in China.


Serum specimens (n = 7,118) were collected to test for syphilis and questionnaire interviews were conducted to obtain socio-demographic and behavioral information among FSWs recruited from different types of venues. FSWs were categorized into three tiers (high-, middle- and low-tier FSWs) based on the venues where they solicited clients. Serum specimens were screened with enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) for treponemal antibody followed by confirmation with non-treponemal toluidine red unheated serum test (TRUST) for positive ELISA specimens to determine syphilis infection. A logistic regression model was used to determine factors associated with syphilis infection.


Overall syphilis prevalence was 5.0% (95%CI, 4.5-5.5%). Low-tier FSWs had the highest prevalence (9.7%; 95%CI, 8.3-11.1%), followed by middle-tier (4.3%; 95%CI, 3.6-5.0%, P < 0.001) and high-tier FSWs (2.2%; 95%CI, 1.6-2.9%, P < 0.001). Factors independently associated with syphilis infection included older age, lower education level, geographic location, lower tier of typology, and injection drug use.


This multi-site survey showed a high prevalence of syphilis infection among FSWs and substantial disparities in syphilis prevalence by the tier of FSWs. The difference in syphilis prevalence is substantial between different tiers of FSWs, with the highest rate among low-tier FSWs. Thus, current surveillance and intervention activities, which have low coverage in low-tier FSWs in China, should be further examined.

Syphilis; Prevalence; Typology; Female sex worker; China