Purpose: Between 4–15% of pregnant women are believed to be infected with syphilis in sub-Saharan Africa. Active infection with syphilis in pregnant women results in foetal or infant death or disability for 50–80% of affected pregnancies, and is a major cause of adult morbidity as well. Antenatal syphilis screening is cheap and effective; however, it is often poorly implemented in countries with high syphilis risk. This study sought to estimate the missed opportunities for antenatal syphilis screening in sub-Saharan Africa.

Methods: Survey data were collected from 22 ministries of health in sub-Saharan Africa, complemented by data from published sources and key informants. Informants described their country’s policies and experience with antenatal syphilis screening and estimated their national syphilis screening rates.

Findings: Seventy-three percent of women are reported by WHO to receive antenatal care in the study countries. Of women in antenatal care, 38% were estimated by survey respondents to be screened for syphilis. Costs and the organization of services were the principal reported obstacles to screening. With syphilis seroprevalence estimated at 8.3%, approximately 1 640 000 pregnant women with syphilis are undetected annually, including 1 030 000 women who attend antenatal care.

Discussion: Syphilis testing and treatment is a cost-effective intervention that deserves much greater attention, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and other countries where syphilis infection is high.