STD Awareness: Syphilis Treatment Through the Ages

The spiral-shaped bacteria that causes syphilis.

When syphilis first descended upon Europe, questions surrounded this mysterious scourge. Was it a punishment from God? Was it introduced by a hated Other? Was it caused by the stars’ alignment or the presence of “bad air”? We now know that syphilis is not caused by supernatural forces, foreigners, or a harmful atmosphere, but rather by a species of corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which is spread by sexual contact — vaginal, anal, or oral sex — in which one person comes into contact with a syphilis sore.

Thanks to penicillin, we don’t have to go back to the “good old days” of puke chalices, antivenereal underpants, and rat poison.

Before good treatments were developed in the 20th century, syphilis was the most feared STD out there. Its initial symptoms can include a painless sore filled with a highly infectious liquid. As the infection spreads, lesions and rashes might appear on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand. After these first waves of symptoms, the infection enters a latent phase, which can lull people into a false sense of security, thinking the disease has disappeared. Unfortunately, 15 percent of people with untreated syphilis reach the late stage, which can occur up to 20 years after initial infection, and includes severe damage to the nervous system, brain, heart, or other organs, and can be fatal.

These days, a shot of penicillin is all it takes to cure syphilis. Back in the day, though, there were myriad “treatments” for syphilis — but they were highly toxic and ineffective. Unfortunately, thanks to the latent phase of syphilis, it often seemed like these treatments did work, which probably explains why folks tortured themselves with them for centuries. If only penicillin had been around: Countless people would have been spared the unpleasant — and often fatal — quackery that syphilis attracted. Continue reading

AIDS Denialism: Conspiracy Theories Can Kill

This scanning electron micrograph from 1989 reveals HIV particles (colored green) emerging from an infected cell. Image: CDC’s C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E.L. Palmer, W.R. McManus

We’ve all heard various conspiracy theories; we may or may not find them credible, and we might chalk up opposing viewpoints to simple differences in opinion. Sometimes, however, conspiratorial narratives are woven around matters of life and death — and in such cases, the spread of such ideas can influence dangerous changes in behavior and even government policy.

AIDS denialism is based on the idea that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause AIDS. Although the existence of HIV and its causal connection to AIDS has been thoroughly demonstrated by scientists, denialists either reject the existence of HIV altogether, or cast it as a harmless virus that doesn’t cause illness. Denialism often relies upon rhetorical strategies that are superficially convincing but intellectually hollow, including the cherry-picking of evidence, appeals to unreliable “experts,” and untestable claims. Denialists also might cite early AIDS research from the mid-1980s while ignoring more up-to-date findings and improved medical procedures. Such rhetoric creates a sense of legitimate debate in an area where there is none, and the only new evidence welcomed into the discourse is that which confirms preconceived notions.

Health decisions must be shaped by the best available evidence, and when denialism misinforms, one cannot make an informed decision.

If AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, what do denialists claim is behind the unique symptoms that characterize it? Some say that conditions such as malnutrition, or diseases that have been around for a long time, are simply being labeled as AIDS. Other denialists cast antiretroviral drugs as the cause, rather than the preventive treatment, of AIDS. Some claim that AIDS is caused by behavior, such as drug use or promiscuity — with some even saying that an accumulation of semen in the anus can cause AIDS. None of the claims is true — while AIDS can leave someone vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases, and while sharing IV equipment and engaging in unprotected sex can increase risk, there is only one cause: HIV. Continue reading