INTRODUCTION: Although the incidence of syphilis is generally low, it remains an important global public health problem, given its interaction with other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It has been shown that syphilis, due to the genital ulcers it produces, is a co-factor for acquiring other STDs, principally those of viral origin such as herpes simples type 2, hepatitis B and HIV. Many female commercial sex workers (FCSW) in Mexico have been found to have acquired good levels of knowledge about STD prevention. Nevertheless, they constitute a heterogeneous group in terms of socio-economic level, health status and type of work site; these factors in turn appear to determine their attitudes, knowledge and behavior related to acquiring and transmitting STDs, including syphilis. This study, therefore, focused on the factors associated with Treponema pallidum infection in this group of women. METHOD: Based on a sample frame of sites where female commercial sex work takes place within Mexico City, a sample of 807 FCSWs was selected; after providing informed consent, they completed a structured questionnaire. A blood sample for identifying serologic markers for STDs was collected and analyzed according to a procedure manual for STD diagnosis. Treponema pallidum was diagnosed using the RPR (Bigaux Diagnostica) screening test, and FTA - ABS (Pasteur Diagnostics) for confirmation. RESULTS: The prevalence of syphilis in this sample of FCSWs was 6.4% (52/807), and was higher among women who worked at street sites than among those who worked in massage parlors. The age of the women interviewed ranged from 17 to 58 years, with a mean of 29.2 years (SD 7.3 years); syphilis was more prevalent among women over 30 years of age. Age at first sexual intercourse ranged from 11 to 30 years, with a mean of 16 years (SD 3.1 years), which is similar to that of the general female population in Mexico. Predictive factors for T. pallidum infection, determined adjusted logistic regression, included: tupe of by work site (bar and street sites); socio-economic level (middle and low); age (over 30 years); duration of involvement in sex work (> 5 years) and number of clients per week (> 10). CONCLUSION: In spite of some limitations regarding statistical precision, this study shows that FCSWs are heterogeneous in terms of risk of acquiring STDs, including syphilis; the principal differentiating factor was shown to be the type of work site. Given that it is not belonging to a risk group but rather participating in risky practices that leads to acquiring STDs, situations that facilitate riskier or safer practices (such as type of sex work site, for sex workers) should be taken into account when studying people's risk level. STD prevention campaigns must also consider these factors, in addition to focusing on FCSWs and their clients and personal partners, so that all involved assume their responsibility for safer sex.
Syphilis; Prostitution; Opportunistic infections; Sex behavior