A history of syphilis


Christopher Columbus, Ludwig van Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh, Adolf Hitler and Al Capone. What do these people have in common? Researchers suspect that at one time, they all had syphilis.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacterium, Treponema pallidum, spread through vaginal, oral or anal sex. U.S. health officials reported about 32,000 syphilis cases in 2002, a relatively low number. However, it still is important for sexually active people to be tested regularly. Although syphilis is treated easily in the first two stages with antibiotics, it can become fatal in the third stage.

However, syphilis was not always so easily treatable, and widespread outbreaks once meant almost certain death for those who contracted the disease.

For example, in 1494, when the first known outbreak of syphilis occurred, having the disease meant being covered almost completely in boils, with flesh falling from the face and death coming within a few months. I’m sure glad we’re not in that time period anymore.

Now the signs and symptoms differ by stages. In the first stage, the signs and symptoms are painless sores lasting three to six weeks. In the second stage, skin rashes and mucous membrane lesions begin to form along with flu-like symptoms. In the third and final stage, there are few external symptoms, but the infection begins to damage internal organs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, syphilis might “subsequently damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. This internal damage may show up many years later.

Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.”

Until the discovery of penicillin, there was no effective treatment for syphilis. Two common therapies included mercury and malaria. Mercury was dispensed by placing patients in a closed box containing the mercury, with their heads sticking out. A fire would then be started under the box, causing the mercury to vaporize. As can be imagined, this must have been very uncomfortable for the patient.

Another remedy for syphilis was to infect the patient with malaria. Malaria caused a high, prolonged fever that sometimes was found to cure syphilis. Getting malaria seemed to be an acceptable risk.

So, there you have it, a brief history of syphilis. Since we now have penicillin to treat syphilis, we don’t have to go through the pain of mercury or malaria to treat it. However, treatment at later stages cannot reverse damage that already has occurred. And, if left untreated over 20 to 30 years, the syphilis might progress to blindness, insanity, paralysis or even death.

If you are sexually active, get tested. STDs may show symptoms, but frequently there are no symptoms at all.

Sex Ed is a weekly column written by the members of Sexual Health Awareness Peer Educators and edited by Carol Kennedy, director of health promotions at Lafene Health Center. If you would like SHAPE to answer your sexual health question, please contact SHAPE at shape@ksu.edu.