Diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections in developing nations using syndromic management: Is it working?

Betiel K Fesseha, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a major public health problem, and controlling their spread is a priority. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 340 million new cases of treatable STIs among 15–49 year olds that occur yearly around the world (1). Infection with STIs can lead to several complications such as pelvic inflammatory disorder (PID), cervical cancer, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and even death (1). Additionally, STIs and associated complications are among the top disease types for which healthcare is sought in developing nations (1), and according to the UNAIDS report, there is a strong connection between STIs and the sexual spread of HIV infection (2). In fact, it is estimated that the presence of an untreated STI can increase the likelihood of contracting and spreading HIV by a factor up to 10 (2). In addition, developing countries are poorer in resources and lack inexpensive and precise diagnostic laboratory tests for STIs, thereby exacerbating the problem. Thus, the WHO recommends syndromic management of STIs for delivering care where lab testing is scarce or unattainable (1). This approach utilizes the use of an easy to use algorithm to help healthcare workers recognize symptoms/signs so as to provide treatment for the likely cause of the syndrome. Furthermore, according to the WHO, syndromic management offers instant and legitimate treatment compared to clinical diagnosis, and that it is also more cost-effective for some syndromes over the use of laboratory testing (1). In addition, even though it has been shown that the vaginal discharge syndrome has low specificity for gonorrhea and Chlamydia and can lead to over treatment (1), this is the recommended way to manage STIs in developing nations. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to specifically address the following questions: is syndromic management working to lower the STI burden in developing nations? How effective is it, and should it still be recommended? To answer these questions, a systematic literature review was conducted to evaluate the current effectiveness of syndromic management in developing nations. This review examined published articles over the past 5 years that compared syndromic management to laboratory testing and had published sensitivity, specificity, and positive predicative value data. Focusing mainly on vaginal discharge, urethral discharge, and genital ulcer algorithms, it was seen that though syndromic management is more effective in diagnosing and treating urethral and genial ulcer syndromes in men, there still remains an urgent need to revise the WHO recommendations for managing STIs in developing nations. Current studies have continued to show decreased specificity, sensitivity and positive predicative values for the vaginal discharge syndrome, and high rates of asymptomatic infections and healthcare workers neglecting to follow guidelines limit the usefulness of syndromic management. Furthermore, though advocate d as cost-effective by the WHO, there is a cost incurred from treating uninfected people. Instead of improving this system, it is recommended that better and less expensive point of care and the development of rapid test diagnosis kits be the focus and method of diagnosis and treatment in developing nations for STI management.

Subject Area

Public health|Epidemiology

Recommended Citation

Fesseha, Betiel K, "Diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections in developing nations using syndromic management: Is it working?" (2008). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI1454656.