Discordant results from reverse sequence syphilis screening--five laboratories, United States, 2006-2010

MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011 Feb 11;60(5):133-7.


CDC recommends syphilis serologic screening with a nontreponemal test, such as the rapid plasma reagin (RPR) or Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL) test, to identify persons with possible untreated infection; this screening is followed by confirmation using one of several treponemal tests. Recently, the availability of automatable treponemal enzyme and chemiluminescence immunoassays (EIA/CIA) has led some laboratories to adopt a reverse sequence of screening in which a treponemal EIA/CIA is performed first, followed by testing of reactive sera with a nontreponemal test. To better understand the performance of reverse sequence screening for syphilis, CDC analyzed data from five laboratories that used reverse sequence screening during 2006-2010. This report describes the results of that analysis, which indicated that among sera reactive on initial screening with a treponemal EIA/CIA, 56.7% had a nonreactive RPR test. Among these discordant sera, 31.6% also were nonreactive by treponemal testing using Treponema pallidum particle agglutination (TP-PA) or fluorescent treponemal antibody absorbed (FTA-ABS) tests. Among discordant sera, the rate of nonreactive confirmatory treponemal tests was 2.9 times higher in a population with low prevalence of syphilis, suggesting that the low-prevalence population had a higher percentage of false-positive test results. Although CDC continues to recommend the traditional algorithm with reactive nontreponemal tests confirmed by treponemal testing, in this report CDC offers additional recommendations if reverse sequence syphilis screening is used.

MeSH terms

  • False Positive Reactions
  • Fluorescent Treponemal Antibody-Absorption Test
  • Humans
  • Immunoenzyme Techniques
  • Laboratories / statistics & numerical data
  • Luminescent Measurements
  • Mass Screening / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prevalence
  • Risk
  • Syphilis / diagnosis*
  • Syphilis / epidemiology
  • Syphilis Serodiagnosis / standards*
  • United States / epidemiology