STD Awareness: The History of Syphilis

Have you ever heard that syphilis originated in the New World, and was imported to Europe by unwitting explorers? Some say it’s a fitting revenge for Europeans, who brought deadly diseases like smallpox and measles to the Americas. Others say that, while it’s an interesting hypothesis, it’s mostly speculation backed by some intriguing circumstantial evidence.

The predominating theory of syphilis’ origin is that it was transmitted from the Americas to Europe via sailors on Christopher Columbus’ ships — sailors who, in addition to other horrific acts, probably raped the natives of Hispaniola, from whom they could have contracted the infection. Historical records show that syphilis popped up in Europe in the last decade of the 1400s, coinciding with the return of Columbus and his crew — when Europe was deeply mired in war. With war came the far and wide travel of troops, who could have introduced the pathogen to prostitutes and other members of local populations.

In the era before antibiotics, syphilis was the world’s most feared sexually transmitted disease.

But we don’t know for certain that Columbus’ crew brought syphilis back from the West Indies in 1493. Some scholars point to ancient writings, from Biblical texts to Chinese records, that contain descriptions of diseases that are consistent with syphilis — though they might merely have described tuberculosis or leprosy. There are also pre-Columbian skeletons from Europe, Africa, and Asia that seem to exhibit evidence of syphilis infection — though diagnosing syphilis based on bone samples is problematic at best. Is it possible that syphilis had existed in the Old World all along, but didn’t become an epidemic until the wars of the Renaissance era allowed syphilis to conquer the continent?

Or perhaps the New World was home to a mild strain of the disease that mutated once it hit European soil. One team of researchers, studying Guyana’s remote Akwio tribe, discovered a disease that was a lot like syphilis, but was not an STD — it spread by skin-to-skin contact and infected about 1 in 20 children. Genetic analysis showed that it was caused by a bacteria that was closely related to the same bug that causes syphilis. Could Columbus’ men have picked up this transitional strain of bacteria and brought it back to Europe, where it mutated to evolve into the virulent pathogen we know today? Continue reading

Book Club: The Origins of AIDS

The Origins of AIDS
By Jacques Pepin

Cambridge University Press, 2011

Most sexually transmitted diesases go back thousands of years. Gonorrhea, for example, was first described by a Greek physician in A.D. 150, and pubic lice have been evolving right along with us since before we became Homo sapiens. This might have been one reason why it was such a shock when a strange new virus came to our attention in the early 1980s. We soon discovered that it was transmitted sexually and through infected blood, but where did it come from?

We have intriguing evidence that HIV as we know it has been in existence since at least the 1930s.

HIV has been around since before the 1980s, though it remained unnoticed and unidentified by medical science. The earliest confirmed case of HIV was in 1959, the proof found in a sample of blood from the Belgian Congo, saved in a freezer for decades and later analyzed for the virus. Other early cases of HIV infection that have retrospectively been confirmed include that of a Norwegian sailor, who must have been infected while visiting African ports in the early 1960s. He, his wife, and his child (who was apparently congenitally infected) all died in 1976, and their tissues were tested 12 years later and found positive for HIV.

Jacques Pepin — a professor and microbiologist, not to be confused with the chef of the same name — does some serious detective work to find the most plausible explanation for HIV’s origins. While he doesn’t skimp on the science, the story of AIDS’ origins can’t be told without getting into the history of Europe’s colonization of Africa in the 20th century. This period, followed by the era of post-colonization, found many societies in upheaval. Urbanization, unemployment, and migration facilitated the spread of HIV in Africa during much of the 1900s, and once it left the continent it was able to hitch a ride from host to host, traveling the world. Continue reading