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Open Access Research article

Screen more or screen more often? Using mathematical models to inform syphilis control strategies

Ashleigh R Tuite1, David N Fisman123 and Sharmistha Mishra45*

Author affiliations

1 Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

2 Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

3 Department of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

4 Division of Infectious Diseases, St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, Rm. 4-179, 30 Bond Street, Toronto M5B 1W8, Canada

5 Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, School of Public Health, Imperial College, London, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Public Health 2013, 13:606  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-606

Published: 24 June 2013



Syphilis incidence among men who have sex with men (MSM) continues to rise despite attempts to increase screening and treatment uptake. We examined the marginal effect of increased frequency versus increased coverage of screening on syphilis incidence in Toronto, Canada.


We developed an agent-based, network model of syphilis transmission, representing a core population of 2,000 high-risk MSM. Epidemiological and biological parameters were drawn from regional surveillance data and literature-derived estimates. The pre-intervention period of the model was calibrated using surveillance data to identify 1000 credible simulations per strategy. Evaluated strategies included: annual syphilis screening at baseline coverage, increased screening frequency at baseline coverage, and increased coverage of annual screening. Intervention impact was measured as annual prevalence of detected infectious cases and syphilis incidence per year over 10 years.


Of the strategies evaluated, increasing the frequency of syphilis screening to every three months was most effective in reducing reported and incident syphilis infections. Increasing the fraction of individuals tested, without increasing test frequency, resulted a smaller decline in incidence, because reductions in infectious syphilis via treatment were counterbalanced by increased incident syphilis among individuals with prior latent syphilis. For an equivalent number of additional tests performed annually, increased test frequency was consistently more effective than improved coverage.


Strategies that focus on higher frequency of testing in smaller fractions of the population were more effective in reducing syphilis incidence in a simulated MSM population. The findings highlight how treatment-induced loss of immunity can create unexpected results in screening-based control strategies.

Syphilis; Mathematical Modeling; Men Who Have Sex With Men; Sexually Transmitted Infection