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Facts You Need to Know About Syphilis: An Introduction

Fact Checked

syphilis bacteria

Story at-a-glance -

  • Syphilis is an STD caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum
  • Syphilis can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her child either during a pregnancy, or during labor and delivery, resulting in a condition called congenital syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium.1 This infection is spread from one person to another during anal, vaginal or oral sex,2 through contact with a syphilis sore of an infected person. The bacteria make their way through the body via minor cuts or abrasions in the skin or through the mucous membranes.3

Syphilis can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her child during pregnancy, or during labor and delivery, resulting in a condition called congenital syphilis.4 The infection-causing bacteria enter the placenta and then infect the baby.5

The Untold History of Syphilis

Syphilis has been affecting people for many centuries now, with the first known syphilis outbreak recorded in Renaissance Italy in 1495, after Charles VIII invaded Naples. Early theories about the origin of this infection suggest that sexual relations between a French leper and a Spanish prostitute infected with gonorrhea, another type of STD, triggered the new disease, called syphilis today.

The story goes on to surmise that the prostitute eventually infected other soldiers. A different fabled version of this account suggests that a prostitute with a uterine abscess who had sex with a leper started the new disease.

No matter what the origin, syphilis eventually took on many names, depending on which country was doing the naming. For example, according to a study in the Journal of Medicine and Life, residents of Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom called it the “French disease,” while the French called it the Neopolitan disease.” Likewise, Russians called it the “Polish disease,” while the Polish called it the “German disease.”

Intriguing as its origin and name are, the fact remained that it quickly spread across Europe, claiming numerous lives. In 1496, mercury was first used to treat this STD,6 although it backfired because it led to fatal cases of mercury poisoning.7

Syphilis by the Numbers Today

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 101,567 reported new syphilis diagnoses across all stages in 2017. Around 30,644 cases were classified as primary and secondary syphilis, considered the earliest and most transmissible stages of this infection.8 The majority of these cases were among homosexual and bisexual people, and among men who have sex with men (MSM). They accounted for 57.9 percent of primary and secondary syphilis cases.

In recent years, there has been a steady rise in the number of recorded cases of primary and secondary syphilis among MSM and in heterosexual men and women.9 As such, it’s possible that there will be more recorded cases in the years to come.

Learn How to Combat Syphilis Effectively

Syphilis can cause immense discomfort and can be a source of embarrassment, but the good news is that there are ways to prevent it from affecting you. Providing yourself with enough information regarding this STD is arguably one of your best defenses.

Take time to read these pages to learn what syphilis is, its usual symptoms, the known stages of the infection, and the most effective preventive measures and treatments that may work in addressing the disease. Share this information with your family and friends so they too can stay vigilant against this disease.

MORE ABOUT SYPHILIS

Syphilis: Introduction

What Is Syphilis?

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Congenital Syphilis

Syphilis Stages

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis Transmission

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis Testing

Syphilis Prevention

Syphilis FAQ

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What Is Syphilis?