Syphilis: from love to hate

Syphilis is a disease of love joys. This word strikes a genuine fear in the hearts of many ladies’ men and modern courtesans.

But is the devil as terrible as he is painted? This article will look at the history, causes and treatment of syphilis.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease characterized by damage to the skin, mucous membranes, bone tissue, internal organs and the nervous system.

Origin of the name and theory of the disease


“A very young swineherd named Syphil (literally translated from Greek. – a lover of pigs) doubted the power of the Olympian gods, directly challenged them, saying that earthly kings are much richer and stronger. For such insolence, the inhabitants of Olympus punished Syphilus with a special ailment “- this is how the scientific work of the 16th century healer Girolamo Frokastoro says (scientific articles and works of that time were closely intertwined with religion and mythology). Since then, this disease has been called by the name of that swineherd – syphilis. Until that moment, the disease was not called as soon as: German disease, French disease, lues (from Latin – infection).

There are three generally accepted theories for the onset of syphilis:

1. In its present form, this disease has existed since time immemorial. This theory is supported by the records of such ancient healers as Avicenna, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Celsus. The mutilations associated with syphilis are described in the Bible texts. Statues and busts of the antique period depict people with outward signs of syphilitic lesions. Analysis of bones found in various cities of antiquity, whose inhabitants fell victim to various elements (Pompeii, Mohenjo-Daro), as well as bones found at excavations of sites of people of the Bronze Age, revealed syphilitic transformations.

2. The first patients with syphilis appeared on the African continent. In the humid environment of the African jungle, over time, many infections closely related to syphilis have been discovered. According to this theory, the disease became widespread thanks to the warriors from the countries of the African continent, but the main reason is the slave trade. African black slaves were enslaved in virtually every corner of the globe.

3. The theory of the New World – at the moment the most common hypothesis about the origin of syphilis. According to her, the first infected with syphilis were located on the American continent. The sailors of the discoverer of Columbus, in this case, played the role of carriers. It was from them that syphilis got to Europe, and spread throughout the old world. Claims by opponents of the theory about earlier remains with bone changes characteristic of complications of syphilis took place until the last discovery of virologists who found a direct connection between the main causative agent of syphilis – the treponema pallidum bacteria – with a variety of treponema of the South African region. Bone remains of an earlier period contain a strain of African treponema that is not sexually transmitted.

Spread of syphilis


About three hundred sailors from the former team of Columbus (already infected with syphilis at that time) took part in the First Italian War of 1494 on the side of Charles VIII. In those days, the armies were followed by a huge number of representatives of the ancient profession with the aim of fabulous earnings, and since syphilis is transmitted mainly sexually, it was they who became the cause of the massive spread of the infection.

After the defeat of Charles VIII in 1496, the infected soldiers returned home after a long campaign, thereby putting the spread of syphilis in the former countries participating in this military conflict: France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland. Then, in a matter of years, foci of infection flare up outside Europe: Africa, Southeast Asia, Turkey, India, China.

Syphilis of Russia


The first chronicle case of syphilis falls on 1499, and after that the disease spreads rapidly – various cases of “sticky” disease are recorded in all volosts and counties. By the time of the accession to the throne of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible, this ailment was so widespread that it did not escape mention in Domostroy, a kind of family code of that time.

By the way, according to scholarly historians referring to documents of that period, Ivan the Terrible himself suffered from syphilis. In their opinion, many of his decisions in governing the state (oprichnina), excessive cruelty and inconsistency of character are the consequences of brain lesions characteristic of the last stages of the disease.

One of the main reasons for the massive spread of syphilis in those days was church influence. Illness was viewed as a heavenly punishment for the sins of adultery, and therefore in no case was it allowed to take any steps towards healing.

Signs and stages of the disease


1. Incubation period – there are no symptoms.

2. Primary stage.

It is characterized by the formation of a hard chancre (ulcer) on the genitals – the labia in women, and the glans of the penis in men. Chancre disappears in the period from twenty days to two months, but this does not mean getting rid of the disease, but about its development in the body.

This stage is accompanied by:

• Inflammation of the lymph nodes in the groin.
• Increased body temperature.
• Spasms of joints and muscles.
• Insomnia and fatigue.
• Decreased appetite.

3. Secondary stage.

The appearance of a pale rash throughout the patient’s body, including the feet and palms of the hands. The rash is not painful and may disappear within 7-10 weeks of onset. This stage carries a latent threat, since in the absence of treatment, syphilis can be asymptomatic (with the exception of a rash, which can also disappear) for three to four years.

Specific rash on the hands and palms. Photo from the site ru.wikipedia.org

4. Tertiary stage.

At the time of our time, it is an extremely rare stage in patients with syphilis due to the development of methods for treating the disease. It occurs about the fifth year after the first symptoms appear. At this stage, the disease affects the internal organs, causing gradual death of cells in the spinal cord and brain. Dementia and paralysis are faithful companions of the last stage of syphilis.

Also at this stage, the back of the nose may sink, thereby causing its failure. Due to the destruction of the bone and cartilaginous tissue of the nasal cavity, a gaping hole can form in the center of the face (this sign was depicted in many paintings and described in many works of the Middle Ages as a harbinger of the inevitable death of the patient).

Syphilis treatment


As mentioned above, the church occupied a dominant position at the time of the spread of syphilis, and it follows that the main method of treatment at first is prayer and fasting. This did not bring any results at all – no positive dynamics was observed.

The medical practice of the Middle Ages was also directly related to the church, but some representatives of doctors still understood the inconsistency of such an alliance, and acted in more scientific ways (as they thought at that time). Mercury was a very popular medicine in the fight against syphilis in the Middle Ages. It is not known for certain who and why began to use the method of mercury treatment, but patients were smeared with mercury ointments, mercury injections were made, and mercury vapor was allowed to breathe. From such manipulations, the patient died due to the poisoning of the body.

In addition to drugs based on mercury, various herbal decoctions, vinegar-based baths, and many other folk methods were used that did not bring results.

Until the 19th century, isolation was the most effective method of combating syphilis – after the discovery of the disease, patients were sent to specialized institutions, where they were under constant supervision. Then, in 1905, the causative agent of the disease was discovered – treponema pale, and in 1928 the first successful tests of penicillin, the first antibiotic, without exaggeration, saved millions of lives, including those with syphilis, were carried out. Antibiotics and immunostimulants are modern, and most importantly, successful methods of treating syphilis, guaranteeing complete recovery.

This ailment has not disappeared anywhere – the “French disease” exists to this day. It is worth remembering that there is no prevention of syphilis, and the most reliable method of contraception, a condom, does not give a 100% guarantee against infection. It follows that the surest way to avoid syphilis infection is by promiscuity in sexual intercourse.

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