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Syphilis: The Painful History of an Odd Bug

Syphilis was a major threat to the health of soldiers in both the First and Second World Wars.
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Looking for Others to Blame

Squillaci called syphilis the “French disease” in his letter. By doing so, the Italian doctor fell in line with an often-seen tendency in early discussions of the illness. That is, people from one area have repeatedly blamed people from another area for the illness.

Like Squillaci, residents of parts of Europe we now call Germany and the United Kingdom also used to call syphilis “the French disease.” Meanwhile, French people referred to syphilis as “the Neapolitan disease,” meaning it came from Naples, Italy.

Russians have called it “the Polish disease,” while Poles have called it “the German disease.” Turks used to call syphilis “the Christian disease,” while Muslims blamed syphilis on the Hindus. In fact, few groups have not been blamed for syphilis at one time or another.

Source of the Name ‘Syphilis’

An Italian poet named Giralamo Fracastoro was the first person to call the illness “syphilis.” In a long poem of that title published in 1530, Syphilis is a character, possibly based on one in Ovid'sMetamorphoses, who is a shepherd to a king. This shepherd angers the sun god Apollo by blaming the god for a drought. In response, Apollo curses Syphilis with a dreadful disease that spreads wildly throughout the area where Syphilis lives. It even infects the king whose flock Syphilis tends.

The fact that this story describes syphilis infecting a king would have rung true to the poem's audience. Many leaders, writers, and artists throughout history appear likely to have had syphilis. Although the facts are not always clear, records of the illnesses of many famous people strongly suggest that their troubles were caused by syphilis.

Among those greats who may have had syphilis are the composers and Franz Schubert, the writers Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, and political figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte. Many other renowned people probably had the illness too, writes Deborah Hayden in her bookPox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis.

Spreading Worldwide

Syphilis swept across Europe in short order. By the end of 1495, it had reached France, Switzerland, and Germany. By 1497, it took hold in England and Scotland. By 1500, the epidemic had Scandinavia, Hungary, Greece, Poland, and Russia in its grip.

During the 1400s and 1500s, European explorers sailed the globe. These explorers brought syphilis with them to India, Africa, the Near East, China, Japan, and the Pacific islands.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, some people thought of syphilis as a punishment for sin and believed that people with the disease didn’t deserve treatment. Some people believed that people with syphilis should be subjected to harsh, painful remedies.

Taking a more enlightened view in 1673, a British physician named Thomas Sydenham wrote that any moral aspects of the disease should be of no concern to doctors. He believed that all people deserved to be treated for their ills and not be judged by physicians.

By the early 18th century, syphilis was no longer the highly virulent epidemic it had been in previous years. It then came to resemble more closely the version of the disease we find today.

Scientific Inquiry and a Cure

In 1905, Fritz Richard Schaudinn, a German zoologist, and Erich Hoffman, a dermatologist, discovered the cause of syphilis: the bacterium calledTreponema pallidum.

Twenty-three years later, in 1928, Alexander Fleming, a London scientist, discovered penicillin.

Finally, 15 years after that, in 1943, three doctors working at the U.S. Marine Hospital on Staten Island, in New York, first treated and cured four patients with syphilis by giving them penicillin. To this day, penicillin remains the cure for syphilis.

An Odd Bug

Syphilis belongs to a group of four diseases known to be caused by bacteria that are members of theTreponemafamily. The others are yaws, bejel, and pinta, all of which are spread through skin contact, primarily among children living in areas with poor hygiene.

As mentioned above, in the case of syphilis, the culprit is a spiral-shaped organism known asTreponema pallidum.

“This is an odd bug. It can’t make its own proteins or lipids [fats], which other bacteria typically do. It cuts off parts of itself so it can bind closely to the cells of the host [the infected person],” says Sheila A. Lukehart, PhD, a professor of medicine and global health at the University of Washington in Seattle and an expert onTreponema pallidum. “It has only the characteristics it needs to survive.”

Prospects for Control of Syphilis

Some of its traits make this bacterium extra tricky to address with a vaccine, says Dr. Lukehart. Nonetheless, researchers are trying to find a vaccine that will work against syphilis.

One of Lukehart’s graduate students is working on a vaccine that would first block the development of any chancre, or sore, in an infected person. By blocking the development of sores, the vaccine could block transmission of the illness from one person to another, since contact with the chancre is how a person without syphilis catches it from an infected person.

Lukehart is optimistic, with some reservations. “I don’t think we are ever going to treat syphilis out of existence, but I do hope that we can treat congenital syphilis [the kind passed from a pregnant woman to her baby] out of existence.






Video: 12. Syphilis: From the "Great Pox" to the Modern Version

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Date: 14.12.2018, 14:38 / Views: 44134