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Sensitivity, specificity and likelihood ratios of PCR in the diagnosis of syphilis: a systematic review and meta-analysis
  1. Angèle Gayet-Ageron1,
  2. Stephan Lautenschlager2,
  3. Béatrice Ninet3,
  4. Thomas V Perneger1,
  5. Christophe Combescure1
  1. 1Division of Clinical Epidemiology, Department of health and community medicine, University of Geneva & University Hospitals of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
  2. 2Outpatient Clinic for Dermatology and Venereology, Triemli Hospital, Zürich, Switzerland
  3. 3Department of Genetic Medecine and Laboratories, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland
  1. Correspondence to Dr Angèle Gayet-Ageron, Division of Clinical Epidemiology, University Hospitals of Geneva, 6 Rue Gabrielle Perret-Gentil, 1211 Geneva 14, Switzerland; angele.gayet-ageron{at}


Objective To systematically review and estimate pooled sensitivity and specificity of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique compared to recommended reference tests in the diagnosis of suspected syphilis at various stages and in various biological materials.

Design Systematic review and meta-analysis.

Data sources Search of three electronic bibliographic databases from January 1990 to January 2012 and the abstract books of five congresses specialized in the infectious diseases' field (1999–2011). Search key terms included syphilis, Treponema pallidum or neurosyphilis and molecular amplification, polymerase chain reaction or PCR.

Review methods We included studies that used both reference tests to diagnose syphilis plus PCR and we presented pooled estimates of PCR sensitivity, specificity, and positive and negative likelihood ratios (LR) per syphilis stages and biological materials.

Results Of 1160 identified abstracts, 69 were selected and 46 studies used adequate reference tests to diagnose syphilis. Sensitivity was highest in the swabs from primary genital or anal chancres (78.4%; 95% CI: 68.2–86.0) and in blood from neonates with congenital syphilis (83.0%; 55.0–95.2). Most pooled specificities were ∼95%, except those in blood. A positive PCR is highly informative with a positive LR around 20 in ulcers or skin lesions. In the blood, the positive LR was <10.

Conclusions The pooled values of LR showed that T. pallidum PCR was more efficient to confirm than to exclude syphilis diagnosis in lesions. PCR is a useful diagnostic tool in ulcers, especially when serology is still negative and in medical settings with a high prevalence of syphilis.

  • Syphilis
  • Pcr
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Diagnosis
  • Serology

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