Evidence is presented which reinforces the complexity of the host-parasite interaction during the course of syphilis. Infection with Treponema pallidum evokes a complicated antibody response and an assortment of cell-mediated immune reactions in the host. It appears that humoral immunity plays a minor role towards the complete elimination of syphilitic infection while the cellular limb of the immune response may be an important host defence mechanism. Information now available indicates that a state of anergy, or immunosuppression, exists in the early stages of human and experimental rabbit syphilis based upon negative skin reactions to T. pallidum antigen(s), the abnormal histological appearance of lymphoid organs, and impaired in vitro lymphocyte reactivity. It is also evident that in the later stages of the disease cellular immunity becomes activated as delayed type skin reactions can normally be elicited in tertiary syphilitics and lymphocyte behaviour in cell culture appears normal. Several mechanisms have been invoked to explain the delay in an effective immune response against syphilitic infection and the duration of the disease: (1) a capsule-like substance on the outer surface of virulant T. pallidum may act as a barrier against treponemicidal antibody; (2) this material and other biological properties of virulent treponemes could enable spirochaetes to escape being engulfed by macrophages and other phagocytic cells; (3) antigenic competition among different treponemal antigens causing partial tolerance; (4) T. pallidum infection may bring about the elaboration of immunosuppressive substances of host or treponemal origin which inhibit the proper function of lymphocytes, macrophages, and other cell types.
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