The years of syphilis

Syphilis... was suffered by musicians like Franz Schubert, writers like Charles Baudelaire, painters like Toulouse-Lautrec or Van Gogh, famous criminals like Al Capone and monarchs like Henry VIII of England or Ivan the Terrible of Russia... and it is suspected that many other historical figures they suffered it, but it is difficult to confirm it because they made enormous efforts to hide it.

Still today, according to the WHO, in 2020 alone there were more than 7 million infections worldwide, and congenital syphilis, transmitted from mother to fetus, is the second leading cause of fetal death.

The first major outbreak of syphilis occurred in 1495, among the troops of Charles VIII of France who had taken Naples, and in which there were numerous Spanish mercenaries, some of whom, it is claimed, had been part of the crews of Christopher Columbus. who had come to America.

Shortly after their return to France, many began to exhibit the symptoms of a terrible unknown disease that disfigured their faces and caused serious alterations that in 10% or more of cases led to death. The disease spread through France and jumped to its neighbors Germany and Switzerland to cover Europe in a few months. In 1497 he crosses the channel and reaches England and Scotland, and by the year 1500 he is present in the Scandinavian countries, Hungary, Greece, Poland and Russia.

The speed of its spread and its terrible consequences made Europe horrified and every society blamed it on their enemies. The Italians called it the French disease. The French, Neapolitan disease. The Germans baptized it as Spanish itch. For the Russians it was the Polish disease. According to the Turks it was the Christian disease. The Muslims blamed it on the Hindus.

It was also the first disease to be identified as sexually transmitted, which favored the stigma against its victims: they were suffering divine punishment for their debauchery and debauchery. They were immoral people who had to be rejected, although an exception was made for the men and women of the Church who suffered from it, including Pope Julius II, known for having commissioned Michelangelo to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But where did it come from?

an uncertain origin

For a long time, the conclusion of the first scholars of syphilis was taken for granted, according to which this disease had been acquired by the crew of Columbus in the New World and had been brought to Europe. It is the Columbian hypothesis and is based on the absence of cases of syphilis in the Old World before 1495 as well as studies on the prevalence of syphilis among the indigenous people of the misnamed new continent.

Several phenomena have called this hypothesis into question. The presence of bone changes characteristic of this disease in the skeletons of a British monastery of the fourteenth century indicated that there already seemed to be a very aggressive form of syphilis in England at that time. Over time, signs of syphilis have been identified in pre-Columbian skeletons from Pompeii and Metoponto, placing the disease in classical antiquity. Evidence has also been found in other remains from the 14th century in Austria.

The hypotheses branch out from there. The study of syphilis in America suggests that there was a mild form of the disease that may have been common in childhood and that it protected the inhabitants in the most aggressive way in adulthood. The mutation of the bacterium that causes the disease is further evidenced in the way it became milder and less deadly around the 17th century. This also opens the possibility that the 1495 outbreak was not due to the presence of bacteria brought from the other side of the Atlantic, but rather due to a mutation in Europe itself, coinciding in time with the voyages of Columbus, of a disease that was generally more slight that he had had critical moments in the past.

Whatever the truth, even if it is the mixture of several of these hypotheses, the fact is that the appearance of syphilis in Naples changed the face of Europe profoundly.

It was the Austrian Joseph Grunpeck who in 1496 described in detail the stages of advance of syphilis. In the first, between 10 and 90 days after infection, a painless genital sore, called a chancre, develops at the site of infection. This ulcer disappears between 3 and 6 weeks later. A second stage occurs 2 to 8 weeks after the chancre has disappeared, with a skin rash, fever, sore throat, weakness, weight loss, neurological problems such as irritability or paralysis, and even hair loss. These symptoms disappear on their own and the disease enters a latent or hidden period where it seems to have disappeared.

After a period that can range from one to twenty years -it may even never happen-, the victim presents large sores called gummas on the skin and internal organs, which are accompanied by destruction of bone in some areas, especially the skull, or its irregular formation in other areas. The skin can fall, especially that of the face, such as the nose, and the heart and blood vessels can be affected. One form of the tertiary stage is neurosyphilis, which attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis, depression, behavioral disturbances, and psychosis.

For more than 400 years there was no effective treatment for syphilis, and therefore all kinds of useless but 'logical' remedies were used, including the use of mercury as an ointment, ingested or inhaled its vapors. It is impossible to know how many people died from this extremely poisonous remedy rather than from their illness.

brutal experiments

From 1932 to 1972, the progression of syphilis in black male patients was studied in the United States, misleading them about the object of the study and denying them treatment with penicillin when it was already available. In World War II, the Japanese military experimented terrifyingly on prisoners trying to weaponize syphilis, and from 1946 to 1948, other American researchers purposely infected Guatemalan victims to study the disease.

In the 20th century, the fight against syphilis finally achieved results. In 1905, Erich Hoffman and Fritz Schaudinn identified the cause: the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum, and only four years later the Japanese Sahachiro Hata discovered arsphenamine, the first effective antimicrobial that cured syphilis. When penicillin was finally studied in volunteers and launched on the market in 1943, humanity had for the first time a real, simple and effective cure for the disease, leaving behind centuries of horror, pain, death and social condemnation.

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