Conference Coverage

Some Brits snuff out TORCH screen to raise awareness of congenital syphilis



LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA– Pediatricians in the south of England are so concerned about the recent national increase in the diagnosis of syphilis in adults and its ramifications for neonates that they’ve ditched the traditional TORCH newborn screen because the acronym doesn’t specifically remind clinicians to think about congenital syphilis, Mildred A. Iro, MD, PhD, said at the annual meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Mildred A. Iro Bruce Jancin/MDedge News

Dr. Mildred A. Iro

We recommend a relabeling of the TORCH screen to ‘the congenital infection screen’ in order to include syphilis, which is now our local practice,” explained Dr. Iro of the University of Southampton (England).

She highlighted salient features of three recent cases of congenital syphilis managed at Southampton Children’s Hospital.

“The key message that we’d like to share is that we just need to be more aware about congenital syphilis. Retest mothers if their risk factor status changes, and test suspected infants and children,” Dr. Iro said.

As a practical matter, however, even though current guidelines recommend retesting mothers whose risk factor status becomes heightened following an initial negative syphilis serology result early in pregnancy, clinicians often are unaware that a mother’s risk status has changed. And retesting all mothers during pregnancy isn’t attractive from a cost-benefit standpoint. This makes scrupulous screening of newborns all the more important. And yet TORCH, which stands for Toxoplasmosis, Other, Rubella, Cytomegalovirus, and Herpes infections, isn’t an acronym that promotes awareness of congenital syphilis, a disease which occupies an obscure position in TORCH under the “O” for “Other” heading. That’s why the term “congenital infection screen” has become the new norm in the south of England, she explained.

However, one pediatrician who didn’t consider congenital infection screen to be an improvement in terminology over TORCH had an alternative suggestion, which struck a favorable chord with his fellow audience members: Simply change the acronym to TORCHS, with the S standing for syphilis.

Dr. Iro noted that two of the three affected children were diagnosed at age 7-8 weeks. The third wasn’t diagnosed until age 15 months, when the mother tested positive for syphilis in a subsequent pregnancy. As is typical of the disease known as “the great masquerader,” while all three of the affected children were unwell early in infancy, they presented with a wide range of symptoms. Among the more prominent features were prolonged irritability, respiratory distress, odd rashes, anemia, hepatomegaly, and tachypnea. One infant had reduced movement and pain in one arm.

All three children underwent extensive testing. None had neurosyphilis. All achieved good outcomes on standard guideline-directed therapy.

As for the mothers, they were aged 19, 21, and 23 years when diagnosed with syphilis. All were Caucasian, and antenatal blood testing was negative in all three. None were retested during pregnancy, even though two of them had a male partner or former partner who was positive for syphilis, and the partner of the third disclosed to her that he had sex with men.

At diagnosis, all three women had a strongly positive Treponema pallidum particle agglutination assay, a high rapid plasma reagin, and a positive syphilis IgM assay.

Dr. Iro reported having no financial conflicts regarding her presentation.

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