BACKGROUND: Prevalence estimates of various bacterial sexually transmitted infections in South Africa have declined considerably since the mid-1990s. Syphilis among pregnant women, for example, declined from 10.8% in 1998 to 2.8% in 2001.
METHODS: Pearson's correlation coefficients were estimated for association between the prevalence of syphilis/male urethral discharge/male genital ulcers and the peak HIV prevalence at a district and provincial level in the early and late phases of the HIV epidemic in South Africa.
RESULTS: Prevalence estimates of syphilis, male urethral discharge and male genital ulcers during the period preceding the peak HIV prevalence were all positively correlated with the peak HIV prevalence at a provincial level (Pearson's correlation coefficient [r] = 0.83, p = 0.006; r = 0.66, p = 0.052; r = 0.79, 0.011, respectively). These relationships all switched to a negative association later in the HIV epidemic at a provincial level (r = -0.53, p = 0.14; r = -0.73, p = 0.130; r = -0.54, p = 0.027, respectively).
CONCLUSION: AIDS mortality may have played an important role in the decline of bacterial sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis in this region. Consequently, the relatively recent scale-up of antiretroviral therapy may result in a resurgence of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections as observed in high-income countries.