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Syphilis 101

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The origin of syphilis may be unknown but the disease holds an infamous historical background as one of the most notorious sexually transmitted infections in history, and as a widespread problem that chronicles for hundreds of years. Many believe in the Columbian theory that Columbus introduced syphilis to the new world. This had a devastating effect on the indigenous Americans that resided there and caused epidemic amounts of sickness and death for many of their native people. Another belief in the origin of syphilis is the pre-Columbian theory that states the disease is described by Hippocrates in his writings, and has references in the Bible.


In high school, we once watched a movie in American history class about how syphilis was a widespread problem throughout America during the pre World War One era. It was historically educational—similar to the information above, but not very informative about the disease in present day society. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that many people believe was much more prevalent in the past than in the present. However, with syphilis rates on the rise in the past few years, this is an unfortunate misconception.


According to studies done by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) between the years 2000 and 2004, the rate of syphilis has been on the rise in America. In 2004, syphilis cases increased by a little over 11 percent. And in 2005, the number of cases increased by another 9 percent. Though the rates from 1990 to 2000 decreased significantly, this sudden increase in the past few years is of concern.


The symptoms of syphilis can be confusing since many of them are very similar to other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum and often reveals itself as a sore or legion called a “chancre” in the genital area where there has been sexual contact with a person infected with syphilis. This is the first stage of syphilis. If properly treated in this early stage, it can be cured without much difficulty, but when left untreated for long periods of time, it can affect a person’s entire body. The second stage of syphilis begins between two to ten weeks after the chancre heals. The bacteria may spread through the blood and throughout the body which causes a number of symptoms including:


  • Rashes, which can appear on the soles and palms of feet and hands


  • Headaches


  • Fever


  • Appetite and weight loss


  • Sore throat


  • Muscle aches


The third stage of syphilis can occur anywhere between one year and ten years after the initial infection. During this stage, a person may have many symptoms, that can potentially lead to death, including:


  • Tumor-like growths throughout the body and inside the body


  • Memory loss


  • Mental problems


  • Problems walking


  •  Vision problems


  • Infection of the central nervous system


  • Loss of feeling in legs and other areas of the body


  • Neurological damage, which may result in insanity


Historically, syphilis was treated with mercury that was given via the mouth or by infecting the person with malaria. Since lingering high fevers were known to cure syphilis, malaria was used to cure it because prolonged fevers were a result of malaria. When penicillin was discovered, all these harmful treatments became archaic. Today penicillin is still the most common way to treat syphilis. If you’re allergic to penicillin, doses of tetracycline—an antibiotic—can be used. Damage in the later stages may be permanent, so it is extremely important to properly treat syphilis as early as possible.


The best ways to prevent syphilis is to be as educated as possible about whom you’re having sex with and the risks that sex may bring. Talking with your partner before intercourse can also give you important information to help protect you from sexually transmitted infections. (see related article: "How to Get Peace of Mind Before Getting A Piece of Tail.") Using condoms is a tried and tested way to prevent syphilis and other STIs. When it comes to sex, it is valuable to be aware and educated about the health risks that may follow—syphilis and other STIs. Protecting yourself is just a matter of education.


Helpful Web sites:


cdc.gov/std/syphilis/default.htm


mayoclinic.com/health/syphilis/DS00374


plannedparenthood.org/sexual-health/std/syphilis.htm

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