April 14, 2021

Why is syphilis immune to antibiotics? | Science

Why is syphilis immune to antibiotics? | Science

Syphilis is caused by bacteria and is not immune to antibiotics. If it is detected early, it can be killed in a very simple way with a treatment that is cheap and effective: penicillin G. The problem with syphilis appears when it is not detected early and untreated. Then, the syphilis bacteria remains in a state of latency, it is camouflaged inside the body and there it is very difficult to treat because it penetrates into the cerebrospinal fluid and attacks the central nervous system. I guess our reader's question is about why there are people who do not respond well to treatment. This happens sometimes in that case, when the damage that has already caused they can not be reversed and also if the stage of the disease is very advanced, there is a risk that the medicines will not work.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease, an STD Once the body comes into contact with the bacteria, there is an incubation period of generally between two and six weeks in which a wound develops in the place where the inoculation of the bacteria called syphilitic chancre occurred. This kind of painless sore contains bacteria that are very infectious if they come in contact with the skin of another person during sexual intercourse. These wounds heal themselves after a few weeks and that is why many people do not detect that they have the disease, they think it was a normal wound caused by anything and unimportant. Then comes the secondary state that usually occurs after the first week of the primary state and until after six months. During this secondary phase you can also confuse syphilis with other diseases because what it causes is a general malaise with fever that can make you believe, for example, that it is a flu. That is why it was said that syphilis was the great imitator of other diseases.

Bacteria 'treponema pallidum'
Bacteria 'treponema pallidum'

During these two stages, primary and secondary, the disease is very contagious but patients may not know they are infected with an STD. If a person does not know he has syphilis and is not treated, he enters a period of latency without symptoms and that is where the most serious problems can appear because although it is less infectious (except in the case of pregnant women, they can infect the fetus, causing serious problems in it and even interruption of pregnancy) this stage can last for decades, and even all of life. In that time, syphilis is introduced into the central nervous system and can cause a tertiary period (neurosyphilis and cardiovascular syphilis) which is the most serious problems that can lead to death. Tertiary syphilis occurs in approximately one third of untreated patients. Contrary to what happens in the first two stages, in this third there are times when the treatment does not work, it depends on each case and the immune system of the patient.

There are many people who think that there is no syphilis but it is not like that. Not only does it remain but its contagion is increasing. The latest data published in Spain say that we have gone from 700 cases diagnosed in the year 2000 to 3,886 in 2015. What happened is that the appearance of HIV in the eighties made the ETS protection measures widely extended. And with the decrease of transmission of these infections came a kind of general tranquility that has caused them to return to relax protection measures. And it is important to know that using condoms does not completely prevent the spread of syphilis, the only way to avoid it is sexual abstinence. Because of course, even if you are using a condom, the only thing that covers this is the penis and if the wounds are around the genitals, in English, for example, they may come into contact with the skin of the other person.

Curiously, for many years syphilis was treated with mercury, which popularized the phrase: "One night with Venus and one life with Mercury". Later it was seen that this element was more harmful than beneficial given its enormous toxicity and this treatment was abandoned. Fortunately, the discovery of penicillin in the 1940s provided us with a simple and effective treatment (if treated in time) that has been used since then.

Marta Abellán-Flos has a PhD in Chemistry. Researcher in Organic Chemistry and Supramolecular in ESPCI. Paris Sciences et Lettres University (PSL).

Question asked via email by Alejandro Leal

Coordination and writing: Victoria Toro

We respond is a weekly scientific office that will answer readers' questions about science and technology. They will be scientists and technologists, members of AMIT (Association of Women Researchers and Technologists), those that answer those doubts. Send your questions to us [email protected] or on Twitter # we answer


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