A High Burden of Asymptomatic Genital Tract Infections Undermines the Syndromic Management Approach Among Adolescents and Young Adults in South Africa: Implications for HIV Prevention Efforts

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Kaida, A., Dietrich, J.J., Laher, F. et al. A high burden of asymptomatic genital tract infections undermines the syndromic management approach among adolescents and young adults in South Africa: implications for HIV prevention efforts. BMC Infect Dis 18, 499 (2018). DOI: 10.1186/s12879-018-3380-6.

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Adolescents and young adults
Sexually transmitted infections
Genital tract infections
HIV prevention
Syndromic management
Performance analysis
South Africa

Background  Youth in southern Africa, particularly adolescent girls and young women, are a key population for HIV prevention interventions. Untreated genital tract infections (GTIs) increase both HIV transmission and acquisition risks. South African GTI treatment guidelines employ syndromic management, which relies on individuals to report GTI signs and symptoms. Syndromic management may, however, underestimate cases, particularly among youth. We compared genital tract infection (GTI) prevalence by symptom-based and laboratory assessment among sexually-experienced youth in South Africa, overall and stratified by sex.

Methods  Interviewer-administered surveys assessed socio-demographics, behaviors, and GTI symptoms among 352 youth (16-24 yrs., HIV-negative or unknown HIV status at enrollment) enrolled in community-based cohorts in Durban and Soweto (2014–2016). Laboratory tests assessed HIV, Chlamydia trachomatis (CT), Neisseria gonorrhoeae (NG), Mycoplasma genitalium (MG), Trichomonas vaginalis (TV) infections and, among females, bacterial vaginosis (BV) and Candida species. Youth with genital ulcers were tested for HSV-2 and syphilis. We assessed sensitivity (and specificity) of symptom-based reporting in identifying laboratory-confirmed GTIs.

Results  At baseline, 16.2% of females (32/198) and < 1% (1/154) of males reported ≥1 GTI symptom. However, laboratory tests identified ≥1 GTI in 70.2% and 10.4%, respectively. Female CT prevalence was 18.2%, NG 7.1%, MG 9.6%, TV 8.1%, and 5.1% were newly diagnosed with HIV. BV prevalence was 53.0% and candidiasis 9.6%. One female case of herpes was identified (0 syphilis). Male CT prevalence was 7.8%, NG 1.3%, MG 3.3%, TV < 1%, and 2.0% were newly diagnosed with HIV. Overall, 77.8% of females and 100% of males with laboratory-diagnosed GTIs reported no symptoms or were asymptomatic. Sensitivity (and specificity) of symptom-based reporting was 14% (97%) among females and 0% (99%) among males.

Conclusion  A high prevalence of asymptomatic GTIs and very poor sensitivity of symptom-based reporting undermines the applicability of syndromic GTI management, thus compromising GTI control and HIV prevention efforts among youth. Syndromic GTI management does not meet the sexual health needs of young people. Policy changes incorporating innovations in GTI diagnostic testing are needed to reduce GTIs and HIV-associated risks among youth.

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