Syphilis: Screening --Asymptomatic, nonpregnant adults and adolescents who are at increased risk for syphilis infection


General

Grade: A The USPSTF recommends the service. There is high certainty that the net benefit is substantial. Offer or provide this service.

Specific Recommendations

The USPSTF recommends screening for syphilis infection in persons who are at increased risk for infection.

Frequency of Service

The optimal screening frequency for persons who are at increased risk for syphilis infection is not well established. Men who have sex with men or persons living with HIV may benefit from more frequent screening. Initial studies suggest that detection of syphilis infection in MSM or persons living with HIV improves when screening is performed every 3 months compared with annually.7

Risk Factor Information

Based on 2014 surveillance data,1 men who have sex with men (MSM) and men and women living with HIV have the highest risk for syphilis infection.  When deciding which other persons to screen for syphilis, clinicians should be aware of the prevalence of infection in the communities they serve, as well as other sociodemographic factors that may be associated with increased risk of syphilis infection. Factors associated with increased prevalence that clinicians should consider include history of incarceration, history of commercial sex work, certain racial/ethnic groups, and being a male younger than 29 years, as well as regional variations that are well described. Refer to clinical considerations of the recommendation statement.


Clinical

Patient Population Under Consideration

This recommendation applies to asymptomatic, nonpregnant adults and adolescents who are at increased risk for syphilis infection. Screening for syphilis in nonpregnant populations is an important public health approach to preventing the sexual transmission of syphilis and subsequent vertical transmission of congenital syphilis.

Assessment of Risk

The USPSTF recommends screening for syphilis in persons who are at increased risk for infection. Based on 2014 surveillance data,1 men who have sex with men (MSM) and men and women living with HIV have the highest risk for syphilis infection; 61.1% of cases of primary and secondary syphilis occurred among MSM, and approximately one-half of all MSM diagnosed with syphilis were also coinfected with HIV. One study found that rates of syphilis coinfection were 5 times higher in MSM living with HIV compared with men living with HIV who do not have sex with men.4 Based on older study data from northern California, the adjusted relative risk for syphilis infection in persons living with HIV (vs those without HIV) was 86.0 (95% CI, 78.6 to 94.1); 97% of those living with HIV and with incident syphilis were male.5When deciding which other persons to screen for syphilis, clinicians should be aware of the prevalence of infection in the communities they serve, as well as other sociodemographic factors that may be associated with increased risk of syphilis infection. Factors associated with increased prevalence that clinicians should consider include history of incarceration, history of commercial sex work, certain racial/ethnic groups, and being a male younger than 29 years, as well as regional variations that are well described. Men accounted for 90.8% of all cases of primary and secondary syphilis in 2014. Men aged 20 to 29 years had the highest prevalence rate, nearly 3 times higher than that in the average US male population.1 Syphilis prevalence rates are also higher in certain racial/ethnic groups (among both men and women); in 2014, prevalence rates of primary and secondary syphilis were 18.9 cases per 100,000 black individuals, 7.6 cases per 100,000 Hispanic individuals, 7.6 cases per 100,000 American Indian/Alaska Native individuals, 6.5 cases per 100,000 Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander individuals, 3.5 cases per 100,000 white individuals, and 2.8 cases per 100,000 Asian individuals.1 The southern United States comprises the largest proportion of syphilis cases (41%); however, the case rate is currently highest in the western United States (7.9 cases per 100,000 persons). Metropolitan areas in general have increased prevalence rates of syphilis.1 Risk factors for syphilis often do not present independently and may frequently overlap. In addition, local prevalence rates may change over time, so clinicians should be aware of the latest data and trends for their specific population and geographic area.Although direct evidence on screening among nonpregnant persons who are not at increased risk for syphilis infection is lacking, based on the established test performance characteristics of current screening tests and the low prevalence rate of syphilis in this population, the yield of screening is likely low. Therefore, screening in this population may result in high false-positive rates and overtreatment.

Screening Tests

Current screening tests for syphilis rely on detection of antibodies rather than direct detection of the organism. Screening for syphilis infection is a 2-step process involving an initial nontreponemal test (Venereal Disease Research Laboratory [VDRL] or rapid plasma reagin [RPR] test) followed by a confirmatory treponemal antibody detection test (fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption [FTA-ABS] or Treponema pallidumparticle agglutination [TPPA] test). A reverse sequence screening algorithm has been developed in which an automated treponemal test (such as enzyme-linked, chemiluminescence, or multiplex flow immunoassays) is performed first, followed by a nontreponemal test. If the test results are discordant in the reverse sequence algorithm, a second treponemal test (preferably using a different treponemal antibody) is performed.6There is limited evidence on the accuracy of screening using the reverse sequence algorithm. Findings from 2 studies suggest that using a reverse sequence algorithm may detect additional cases of syphilis missed by the usual algorithm.7 However, the clinical significance of these additional cases is unclear, and more studies are needed to better understand the implications of using a reverse sequence algorithm for screening in a primary care setting. Newer screening technologies that include rapid syphilis tests are also currently emerging. These tests have the potential to be performed in nontraditional and nonclinical settings; however, more evidence is needed on the effectiveness of these tests as part of a screening program in a primary care setting.

Screening Intervals

The optimal screening frequency for persons who are at increased risk for syphilis infection is not well established. Men who have sex with men or persons living with HIV may benefit from more frequent screening. Initial studies suggest that detection of syphilis infection in MSM or persons living with HIV improves when screening is performed every 3 months compared with annually.7

Treatment

In its 2015 guidelines on the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends parenteral penicillin G benzathine for the treatment of syphilis. Dosage and route may vary depending on the stage of disease and patient characteristics. To obtain the most up-to-date information, clinicians are encouraged to access the CDC website.8

Additional Approaches to Prevention

Public health agencies and local health departments have a critical role in the prevention and treatment of syphilis. Local health departments are often responsible for investigating incident cases of syphilis and identifying potential contacts who may need further testing or treatment. Primary care clinicians should be aware of applicable local public health laws and reporting requirements for syphilis cases.

Useful Resources

Persons who are at risk for or have been diagnosed with syphilis infection may engage in behavior that increases their risk for other sexually transmitted infections. The USPSTF has made a separate recommendation on screening for syphilis in pregnant women, as well as screening for HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia in sexually active adolescents and adults and behavioral counseling interventions to prevent sexually transmitted infections (available at www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org).


Rationale

Importance

The number of cases of primary and secondary syphilis have increased since 2000. In 2014, 19,999 cases (6.3 cases per 100,000 persons) of primary and secondary syphilis were reported in the United States.1 Left untreated, syphilis can progress to late-stage disease in approximately 15% of persons who are infected.2 Consequences of late-stage syphilis include development of inflammatory lesions throughout the body (eg, aortitis, gummatous lesions, and osteitis), which can lead to cardiovascular or organ dysfunction. Syphilis infection of the central nervous system (neurosyphilis) can occur at any stage of disease and can result in blindness, paresis, tabes dorsalis, and dementia. Syphilis infection also increases the risk for acquiring or transmitting HIV infection.The USPSTF addresses screening for syphilis in pregnant women in a separate recommendation statement.3

Detection

There are numerous screening tests for syphilis. Most common is a combination of nontreponemal and treponemal antibody tests. The USPSTF found convincing evidence that screening algorithms with high sensitivity and specificity are available to accurately detect syphilis.

Benefits of Early Detection and Treatment

The USPSTF found convincing evidence that treatment with antibiotics can lead to substantial health benefits in nonpregnant persons who are at increased risk for syphilis infection by curing syphilis infection, preventing manifestations of late-stage disease, and preventing sexual transmission to others.

Harms of Early Detection and Treatment

The USPSTF found no direct evidence on the harms of screening for syphilis in nonpregnant persons who are at increased risk for infection. Potential harms of screening include false-positive results that require clinical evaluation, unnecessary anxiety to the patient, and the potential stigma of having a sexually transmitted infection. The harms of antibiotic treatment are well established, and the magnitude of these harms is no greater than small.

USPSTF Assessment

The USPSTF concludes with high certainty that the net benefit of screening for syphilis infection in nonpregnant persons who are at increased risk for infection is substantial.


Others

Other Considerations Implementation Although testing for syphilis in persons living with HIV may be part of HIV management care provided in a specialty setting, screening for syphilis is often conducted in primary care settings, and primary care clinicians are encouraged to routinely screen their patients who are living with HIV. Research Needs and Gaps Studies are needed that directly evaluate the effectiveness of screening for syphilis on related morbidity and mortality in other high-risk populations, in addition to MSM and persons living with HIV, as well as studies that help identify optimal screening intervals. Studies in adolescent populations are particularly needed. In addition, studies that evaluate the effectiveness of risk assessment instruments or other methods to identify persons who are at increased risk and who may benefit from screening are needed. Further, studies on the diagnostic accuracy of reverse sequence screening algorithms in well-defined patient populations are needed, as well as studies on the interpretation and management of discrepant serology results (such as a positive automated treponemal test, negative nontreponemal test, and positive second treponemal test). Update of Previous USPSTF Recommendations This recommendation is consistent with and updates the 2004 USPSTF recommendation. The current recommendation statement includes updated information on prevalence and risk factors in the United States and data on newer screening tests and approaches. Screening for syphilis infection in pregnant women is now addressed in a separate recommendation statement.3 Recommendations of Others The CDC recommends at least annual screening for sexually active MSM with confirmatory testing for individuals with reactive serology. Persons living with HIV should be screened at least annually; more frequent screening may be appropriate based on individual risk behaviors and local epidemiology. The CDC also recommends syphilis screening in correctional facilities on the basis of the local area and institutional prevalence.9 The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists endorses the CDC’s guidelines.20 The HIV Medicine Association (part of the Infectious Diseases Society of America) recommends that all patients living with HIV be screened for syphilis on initiation of care and periodically thereafter, depending on risk.21 The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends screening for syphilis infection in persons who are at increased risk for infection.22


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