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New STI guidelines emphasise screening

The latest guidelines on managing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STI) focus on the importance of screening, a shift that has been welcomed by experts.

Published by the South African HIV Clinicians Society (SAHIVSOC) last month, the guidelines reflect its aim to move toward “evidence-based and expert endorsed best practice in STI care in Southern Africa”. More than 10 000 health workers with an interest in HIV belong to the organisation, reports Health-e News.

South Africa has a high burden of STIs. Dr Alex de Voux, from the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Cape Town, said there was limited availability of statistics in the country, because infections were not counted as individual cases.

As a surveillance system in the country, within the public health system, they diagnose syndromes instead, limiting the understanding of the true burden of STIs because the information is available only through certain settings and from certain populations.

“The estimates we get from certain research studies and surveillance settings indicate that adolescents are more disproportionately affected by STIs.”

Prevalence of certain STIs

De Voux, whose research focuses on curable STIs, said chlamydia was more prevalent among women. This is usually because they tend to have a longer duration before presenting symptoms or how they are infected tends to last longer than men.

She added that the increasing rates of syphilis infections they are seeing among pregnant women countrywide are a concern.

“This is because syphilis can be transmitted to the unborn baby and result in stillbirth. And then, because we have a relatively high prevalence of HIV, reducing the increase of the STI burden among persons with HIV and other key populations, such as commercial sex workers remains important,” she said.

‘Nothing will change’

Dr Tendesayi Kufa-Chakezha, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said the guidelines released by the SAHIVSOC represent expert-endorsed practice in STI care. However, they were not written by the National Department of Health (NDoH). This means the society’s guidelines are not binding on the state.

After the release of the 2015 STI management guidelines published by the NDOH, the guidelines authored by the department in 2018 included reviewed updates published in the Standard Treatment Guidelines and Essential Medicines list. De Voux said the SAHIVSOC guidelines present key changes that address the limitations in the 2018 document.

Limitations of existing guidelines

The current guidelines rely on a syndromic management method, involving treating the many different causes of the symptoms with which the patient presents.

An example would be a male patient with urethral discharge. Based on the 2015 guidelines, he could have one of the following infections: gonorrhoea, chlamydia or mycoplasma genitalium. Whether or not he had any of these or none, he’d be treated for all of them, a common trend for all other infections.

De Voux explained that the syndromic approach is dependent on the person developing signs and symptoms once infected. She referred to research showing you can be infected with a large proportion of different STIs that don’t represent signs and symptoms. She said it’s also possible you might take longer to develop symptoms, which is often the case.

Danger of missing infections

“If you’re relying on a person to first develop signs and symptoms and then also relying on him or her to come and share that information with a provider, you might be missing a lot of infections,” said De Voux.

“Those are the barriers to treating someone with those infections. This is the limitation of syndromic management.”

In addition, the treatment is also non-specific. This is because patients present with a syndrome and are treated for the most likely infection, as opposed to if they are diagnosed using a test and being directly be treated for the infection.

Focus on screening

De Voux said that one of the major differences with the new guidelines is the focus on screening and testing.

“This means you’re not waiting for someone to present with signs and symptoms before you test them for an STI. And it also recognises that other infections don’t have symptoms, and prompts individuals to be aware and screen regularly.”

Sigma still plays a role in discouraging people from seeking healthcare, she added.

“The guidelines also emphasise that we can test for infections among asymptomatic people, which is important because several infections don’t have overt signs or symptoms, and several complications may come up as a result.”

Lab vs symptom-only screening and testing

Unnoticed and untreated STIs can lead to certain types of cancers, organ damage, or infertility. Kufa-Chakezha agreed that diagnostic testing of priority populations for STI prevention is one of the notable differences.

She also welcomed the inclusion of pathogen-directed treatment. This includes a list of medications that can be used as determined by diagnostic testing.

“In addition, syphilis testing for individuals with genital ulcers and the inclusion of expedited partner treatment is a key change. This is when people treated for STI also receive medications to take home for their partners,” said Kufa-Chakezha.

Bigger budget, more resources

Kufa-Chakezha said there is currently limited capacity to do diagnostic testing for STIs.

She said there would be a need to invest in:
• Laboratory equipment
• Clinic-level supplies for specimen collection
• Staff training at both clinic and laboratory levels
• Supply chains for medicines,
• STI prevention
• Treatment literacy material for the general public
• Data systems to allow the system to monitor and evaluate the impact of new guidelines.

De Voux added that more tests would be administered since those without symptoms would also test. This requires a larger budget to be allocated.

Experts are working to develop the National Strategic Plan (NSP) on STIs and viral hepatitis. “This is an implementation plan to support these guidelines. We need to ensure that we have the budget to accommodate these recommendations,” she said.


Health-e News article – New STI guidelines zoom in on screening (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Young rural SA women more vulnerable to STIs than young men


Meta-analysis of STI prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa


Dramatic increase in STIs in Gauteng


DBE’s policy on HIV, STIs and TB not going far enough




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