Syphilis: The “Spanish Disease” is Making a Comeback

The first known outbreak of syphilis spread across Europe in 1493. It became very rare in developed countries after the discovery of penicillin, but has recently made a return.

The United States had nearly eradicated the disease. After more than a decade in increasing cases, America is having the highest rate in recent history and shows no signs of slowing. Cases of reported early symptoms increased 15% from 2013 to 2014. Rates in New Orleans tripled from 2012 to 2014. Oregon rates increased 1000% from 2007 to 2014.

Syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea all rose together for the first time on record. Health officials believe the increase is a result of new technology dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, which encourage casual sex, as well as prostitution and a decrease in condom use. Compared to chlamydia and gonorrhea, it is hard to detect syphilis because most people don’t think of it as a threat. The outbreak in the early 1990s was mainly heterosexual, but the majority of current cases are found in gay men.

The first sign of syphilis is as a painless sore which appears up to 90 days after infection, usually on the genitals or mouth. The second stage is a skin rash with fever, sore throat, hair loss, and fatigue. Untreated cases can resurface up to 10-20 years after the first infection causing brain/muscle damage, blindness, and death.

Historically, foreigners were blamed for spreading the disease from country to country. Some historians believe Columbus and his crew brought the infection to Europe from America. Famous icons who have been inflicted by syphilis include Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Al Capone died at age 48 from dementia due to neurosyphilis.

Syphilis is completely curable with penicillin, while penicillin will not correct any damage already done by the infection. Condoms are a good precaution, but not completely reliable. Public awareness is key. Budget cuts make it hard for clinics to outreach in communities and offer free STD testing. Physicians also should consider syphilis as an option when diagnosing; just because it is rare doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Sharp, Naomi. “The Return of Syphilis.” Health. The Atlantic, 3 Dec 2015. Web. 13 Dec 2015.

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