The fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption (FTA-ABS) test, an excellent confirmatory treponemal test, has been used increasingly for syphilis screening and case detection. To evaluate its performance as an initial test, we did Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL) slide and FTA-ABS tests on 1,043 patients suspected of having syphilis. When retested in both a local and a reference laboratory, sera from 226 patients with borderline or reactive results demonstrated interlaboratory consistency for the VDRL but not the FTA-ABS. Borderline FTA-ABS results correlated poorly with the diagnosis of syphilis in both laboratories; a reactive FTA-ABS test correlated well only in the reference laboratory. Performance of the test appeared to be diminished by its use in a low-prevalence population and by seemingly minor alterations in the test procedure at the local laboratory.
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