Emory University researchers said sequence variations they identified in the acidic repeat protein gene allow straightforward differentiation of venereal syphilis from non-venereal Treponema pallidum subspecies.
"This finding can lead to improved diagnoses of cases, enabling doctors to prescribe the right treatment and public health workers to determine the best prevention strategies," said Kristin Harper, who led the research team as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute pre-doctoral fellow.
The family of Treponema bacteria causes venereal syphilis and the non-venereal diseases of yaws and bejel, which are transmitted through skin-to-skin or oral contact. Public health workers in parts of Africa have reported difficulty in distinguishing yaws from syphilis in children, leaving open the question of whether the child might have contracted a venereal disease either congenitally or through sexual abuse.
"As yaws eradication efforts near their goal and case diagnosis becomes more difficult due to the relative rarity of yaws, a molecular means of determining whether the infection is venereal or non-venereal becomes essential," Harper said
The study appears online in the journal Immunology and Medical Microbiology.