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Azithromycin Versus Penicillin G Benzathine for Early Syphilis

Chen, Xiang-Sheng MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e31827532ae
Letters to the Editor

National Center for STD Control and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Institute of Dermatology Nanjing, China

To the Editor:

Syphilis remains a global problem, with an estimated 11 million people infected each year in the world.1 Effective antibiotic treatment is a key component of syphilis control programs.2 There is still a debate on whether to include azithromycin at all as an alternate single-dose therapy for the treatment of early syphilis.3 However, a systematic review by Bai and colleagues4 was recently published in Cochrane Database Systematic Review, concluding no statistically significant difference between azithromycin and penicillin G benzathine in relative effectiveness for treatment of early syphilis. Although this conclusion would seem to be rational on the basis of meta-analysis of the 3 available randomized controlled trials, I would like to bring to the readers’ attention the important considerations that were not warned in the article.

First, the authors did not consider the evolution of azithromycin treatment failures or resistance over time and its relationship to the inclusion criteria of this systematic review. On the basis of clinical effectiveness in the treatment of syphilis from nonrandomized studies and randomized controlled trial in 1990s, azithromycin was used for targeted syphilis chemoprophylaxis in 2000 in Vancouver and Los Angeles.5 However, azithromycin treatment failures began to be noted in San Francisco in 20026 and result from an A→G mutation at position 2058 of the 23S rRNA gene of Treponema pallidum. On the basis of detection of this mutation, azithromycin resistance has also been identified in clinical samples from elsewhere in the United States and other countries,7 and the number of resistant specimens has increased with time. Because the trial in the United States8 was carried out before the emergence of azithromycin-resistant T. pallidum, inclusion of this study into the review should be with caution.

Second, the authors did not mention the geographic bias of the available clinical trials to limit the generalization to other areas. Actually, most study subjects of clinical trials were recruited from 2 African countries—Tanzania (328 study subjects)9 and Madagascar (accounting for 82% of the total study participants enrolled in the studies).10,11 In this case, the conclusion from the systematic review may be only appropriate to these 2 countries or can be probably generalized to other African countries, which was supported by a recent study in which no evidence of resistance to azithromycin was found in specimens from Madagascar.11 However, ongoing monitoring for the resistance using the molecular sequencing techniques in these countries is needed.

Because the systematic review of quality randomized clinical trials has been considered the “gold standard” for judging whether one treatment is better than or equal to the other,12 careful preparation of the review and appropriate interpretation of the results would be more important than the review itself. Otherwise, it will be much less likely to inform us and so much more likely to mislead us. Although further studies that validate the efficacy of azithromycin are usually recommended, it would be unethical to design any randomized controlled trial that compares penicillin to azithromycin by deliberately assigning the patients with active syphilis into a potentially ineffective arm of azithromycin in areas where the evidence on high efficacy of penicillin and high resistance of azithromycin from observational studies is so overwhelmingly strong.

Xiang-Sheng Chen, MD, PhD

National Center for STD Control

and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences

Institute of Dermatology

Nanjing, China

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