Open Access Open Badges Research article

Prevalence and risk factors of syphilis infection among drug addicts

Norbert Scherbaum1, Bernhard T Baune2*, Rafael Mikolajczyk3, Thomas Kuhlmann4, Gerhard Reymann5 and Martin Reker6

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Hospital Essen, Germany

2 Mental Health Epidemiology, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Muenster, Albert-Schweitzer-Str. 11, 48129 Muenster, Germany

3 Department of Public Health Medicine; School of Public Health, University of Bielefeld, Germany

4 Hospital of Psychosomatic Medicine, Bergisch-Gladbach, Germany

5 Centre for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics, Dortmund, Germany

6 Centre for Psychiatry and Psychotherapeutic Medicine at Gilead Hospital, Bethel, Bielefeld, Germany

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2005, 5:33  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-5-33

Published: 17 May 2005



Recent epidemiological data show an increased trend of official estimates for syphilis infection in the general population. Many of the infected cases remain undetected leaving an underestimation of the true prevalence of syphilis in the general population, but also among subpopulations such as illicit drug users. There is limited epidemiological data published on the proportion and risk factors of syphilis infections associated with illicit drug abuse.


Illicit drug addicts (n = 1223) in inpatients units in Germany were screened (2000–01) for syphilis and interviewed regarding patterns of drug use and sexual behaviour. TPHA-test for initial screening and FTA-ABS-IgM test in TPHA-positive patients were used.


In total, TPHA-tests were positive in 39 (3.3%) and 7 patients (0.6%) were IgM positive. The prevalence rate for syphilis in males was 1.9% and for women it was 8.5%. Female patients were 4.56 (CI 95% 2.37–8.78) times more likely to have a positive TPHA test than males. Sexual behaviours such as high number of sexual partners, sex for drugs/money, sex on the first day were associated with syphilis infection only in women. Females with frequent sex for drugs or money had 4.31 (CI 95% 2.32–8.52) times more likely a reactive TPHA test than remaining patients. Neither the sociodemographic factors nor sexual behaviour were statistically significant associated with syphilis infection among men at all.


Our data suggest the need for screening for syphilis among these illicit drug users in inpatient settings, in particular among sexual active women. This conclusion is corroborated by the finding of increasing numbers of syphilis infections in the general population. The identification of syphilis cases among drug addicts would give treatment options to these individuals and would help to reduce the spread of infection in this population, but also a spread into heterosexual populations related to prostitution.