Syphilis: The Great Pox

Once referred to as the “great pox” or the “French disease,” syphilis has been a distinguished medical infliction for hundreds if not thousands of years. It was epidemic in Europe in the fifteenth century. In the spirit of always pointing to some other group, the journeys of Columbus are sometimes condemned for bringing this disease to Europe from the West Indies during the late 1400s.

Battles were often the medium for spreading venereal disease in the early years because of pillage and rape, and later because of increased fornication servicing soldiers away from home. But it was the last world war that led to its control. With the emergence of penicillin during World War II, and the succeeding routine screening and treating of the adult community at the time of marriage, military recruiting, childbirth, and even hospital admission, syphilis was headed for the history books. In 1943, there were almost 600,000 cases reported. By 1953, the figure had plummeted to about 6,000 cases. But that has now transformed. In this decade, so far, more than 100,000 instances of early syphilis are being reported annually, the highest since the end of World War II. The rate of infection jumped 59 percent between 1985 and 1990 alone.

The bacterium is generating syphilis, Treponema Pallidum, a corkscrew-shaped bacterium termed as a spirochete, is one of the most insidious members of the hidden army of STDs in North America. A single bacterium, a small dot under a microscope, is enough to cause infection in a woman. Investigative studies have shown that fewer than 100 bacteria minuscule quantity will cause the disease in about half of those exposed.

In the early phases of syphilis, the signs of infection are rather modest and often missed. The first appearance after infection called primary syphilis is usually a single painless papule or raised the area of the skin that ulcerates and forms a chancre. The chancre or papule appears at or near the site of the initial infection, commonly the labia or cervix and lasts for a few weeks. The lymph glands in the groin may become tender and swollen. Meanwhile, the bacterium is lurking and quietly spreading, throughout the body; the next phase called secondary syphilis will occur within weeks or months.

Though secondary syphilis is evident, it can still be easily dismissed as some nonspecific illness. The infected person may have a pale red or pink rash around the chest, arms, waist, and legs, and likewise on a site unusual for any rash, the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Other symptoms appearing for the first time include fever, fatigue, and weight loss, loss of appetite, headache, depression, constipation, or vomiting.