Syphilis: The Painful History of an Odd Bug

Some still fail to take the circuitous route to an effective treatment.

Syphilis has always been seen as a very embarrassing illness. As early as June 1495, an Italian physician called Nicol Squillaci stated in a letter, "There are itchy sensations and a terrible discomfort in the joints," one of the first documented descriptions of Syphilis. "The skin is inflamed with repulsive scabs and is covered with swellings and tubercules that are livid red at first and later turn blacker.”

It usually starts in the sex areas. This curse, this barbaric poison, is the most dangerous thing in the world.

During the first significant outbreak of Syphilis in Europe, when Squillaci sent his letter, the disease had just been discovered.

Syphilis was a more severe disease when it first appeared in Europe in the 15th century. Evidence from historical literature and artworks suggests that the sickness killed its victims and spread more rapidly during that period. Experts believe Syphilis's devastating impact on early European society was because the disease was relatively new there, and few individuals had developed immunity.

Due to the severe and disgusting nature of syphilis symptoms, it was dubbed "the big pox" in the 15th century. Few and inefficient therapy options existed during that period. Mercury ointments and other cures were among those tested by doctors, but they often made patients worse or even killed them.

Moreover, sweat baths were employed because some doctors thought that perspiring would flush the syphilitic toxins out of the body.

Ignoring Responsibility and Placing It on Others

The "French sickness," as Squillaci described Syphilis in his letter. The Italian doctor's view was common among those discussing the disease. This means that residents of one region have constantly accused those in another part of spreading the disease.

Squillaci was not alone in dubbing syphilis "the French illness;" locals in today's German and British-speaking regions of Europe also did so. In France, Syphilis was known as "the Neapolitan sickness," implying that it had originated in that city of Italy.

The Russians refer to it as "the Polish illness," while the Poles refer to it as "the German disease." Syphilis was formerly known as "the Christian illness" in Turkey, whereas Muslims held the Hindus responsible for the disease. In reality, few communities have escaped accusations of spreading the disease.

The Origin of the Word "Syphilis"

The term "syphilis" was initially used to describe the disease by an Italian poet Girolamo Fracastoro. Syphilis is a shepherd to a monarch in a 1530 poetry of the same name; the character may have been inspired by one in Ovid's Metamorphoses. This shepherd has earned the deity's wrath by holding the sun god Apollo responsible for the lack of rain. Apollo responds by cursing Syphilis with a horrible sickness that quickly spreads over the region where Syphilis resides. Even the king whose flock Syphilis tends to become infected.

In particular, the reality that a monarch is infected with Syphilis rings true to the poet's audience. It's possible that Syphilis affected many historical figures, including prominent politicians, authors, and artists. While it is not always certain, Syphilis is often believed to have been the cause of the health problems experienced by several prominent persons.

Composers Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, authors James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and politicians like Napoleon Bonaparte are among the notable people who may have had Syphilis. Deborah Hayden suggests in her book “Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Secrets of Syphilis” that the disease also affected many other famous individuals.

Invading Everywhere

In a short period, Syphilis spread over Europe. By the year's end, it had spread to Switzerland, Germany, and France. It spread over England and Scotland by 1497. By 1500, the plague had already swept Europe, infecting countries as far afield as Russia, Poland, and Greece.

A plethora of European explorers traveled the world between 1400 and 1500. These intrepid travelers dispersed Syphilis over Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Pacific by introducing it to new regions.

Several individuals in the 16th and 17th centuries saw Syphilis as a divine punishment for sin and considered those who had the illness didn't deserve medical help. Others think patients with Syphilis should be exposed to painful treatments.

In 1673, a British physician called Thomas Sydenham said that physicians shouldn't worry about the moral implications of their work. He felt doctors should treat patients without judging their mental or physical health.

The early 18th century saw a decline in the severity of the syphilis pandemic that had plagued earlier centuries. Then, it started to look more like a modern form of illness.

Cure and Research in Science

The bacteria Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of Syphilis, was identified in 1905 by German biologist Fritz Richard Schaudinn and dermatologist Erich Hoffman.

Then, in 1928, a London researcher named Alexander Fleming found penicillin.

In 1943, in the U.S. Naval Hospital on Staten Island, New York, three doctors successfully treated and cured four patients with Syphilis with penicillin; this was 15 years after the discovery of the antibiotic. The infection known as Syphilis may be treated with penicillin.

Quite the Weird Bug

Syphilis is one of four related disorders attributed to bacteria of the Treponema. Four more skin-transmissible diseases disproportionately affect children in low-income and otherwise unsanitary environments.

As was previously explained, the organism responsible for Syphilis is a spiral-shaped one called Treponema pallidum.

It's a peculiar glitch. Unlike other bacteria, it cannot synthesize its own proteins and lipids. The bacteria snip off pieces of itself to better attach to the host's cells. The only traits it has are those essential to its survival.

Hopes for Taming Syphilis

The unique characteristics of this bacteria make it very challenging to combat with a vaccination. A 2016 evaluation of syphilis vaccine research over the previous decade found that, despite efforts, progress toward an effective vaccination against the disease has been modest. Although the authors acknowledged that, based on current studies, an effective vaccination is not out of the question, they also emphasized the need for additional financing and public health support to make such a vaccine a reality.

While Luke hart is generally upbeat, he does have a few misgivings. I don't believe we'll ever be able to cure Syphilis to extinction, but I hold out hope that we can eradicate congenital Syphilis. You may do this via screening.

Updated on: 07-Apr-2023


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