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The Veneral Pest Returns

The history of syphilis makes interesting reading. For a start, there’s controversy about its origins. Some believe it to have been prevalent from at least 3000BC, whereas the more popular theory links its general introduction to the world to the return of the Columbus navigators from the New World in 1493. Regardless of its actual beginnings, its prevalence increased significantly over the next decade, starting with the French invading Italy in 1494. Encountering little resistance, French soldiers then proceeded to lead a led a life of limitless depravity in Rome. Not long after, descriptions began to emerge of a strange, pustular disease more terrifying then leprosy and elephantiasis being found on soldiers’ bodies. This pustular disease was later identified as syphilis.

Of course, the French army was blamed for spreading this affliction throughout Europe. In Italy, Germany, and the UK, the condition became known as ‘the French disease’. Not wanting to be cursed for something they possibly weren’t completely responsible for, the French refused to adopt the name, calling it ‘the Neopolitan disease’. In fact, every country whose population was affected by syphilis tended to attribute its arrival to their neighboring (or sometimes enemy) country, with the Russians assigning the name ‘Polish disease’, the Turks calling it ‘Christian disease’, and the Muslims and Hindus blaming each other.

It took until the 1940s and the discovery of penicillin and institution of preventive measures to gain control of the disease, although numerous, somewhat toxic treatments such as mercury, were dabbled with along the way. In 2000, rates of syphilis in the U.S. reached an all-time low. But not for long.

Between 2013 and 2017 rates of primary and secondary syphilis increased by 73% overall. More than 100,000 cases of syphilis were reported to the CDC in 2017. Rates of babies being born with syphilis (congenital syphilis) more than doubled. Syphilis has returned with a vengeance.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection with four different stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Symptoms of primary syphilis usually include firm, round, painless, sores on or around the genitals, anus, or mouth. Secondary syphilis presents with skin rash, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. There are no signs or symptoms during the latent stage, but tertiary syphilis, which can occur 10-30 years after the initial infection, is associated with severe medical problems that can affect the heart, brain, and other organs of the body.

April is STD awareness month. The CDC has detailed information about STD prevention, treatment, and awareness on their website. Most tests are simple and many, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, just test your urine for infection. If you are pregnant and have not had an STD test during this pregnancy, then talk to your doctor. You should be tested at your first prenatal visit then during the third trimester and delivery if you are at risk. Early treatment of the infection may prevent your baby from being stillborn or suffering serious health problems for the rest of her life.

Any sexually active person can get syphilis through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. But syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics. Take control of your sexual health and make April the month you get tested for STDs.

For more information about STDs, see here.

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