Syphilis Rears Its Ugly Head Once Again

September 05, 2018
by John Kelly, MD
Syphilis Rears Its Ugly Head Once Again

If you thought syphilis was long gone, you’d be “sorely” mistaken. The world has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of syphilis cases. In 2007, Germany reported more than 4,300 cases, but that number nearly doubled in 2017 – to 7,476.

Why is that?

It’s the ease people have in traveling from one city to another – from one country to another – and the opportunity they have to sleep with an individual. This increases the chances of being infected with syphilis.

In the 1980s, there was the safe sex mantra that was in response to the HIV pandemic, but it’s not practiced today like it was then. Today’s young people didn’t experience the fear that the first HIV cases caused, so many of them don’t have the important information on how to keep themselves safe during sexual activity.

How Can You Know If You Have Syphilis?

Not everybody with syphilis will present with symptoms or the same symptoms. For some cases, an ulcer appears at the site of the infection, ranging from pimple size to even bigger. Men will often see ulcers on their penis while women can see them on their labia or in the vagina. An ulcer can also appear on the tongue, lips and anus.

In some cases, the syphilis bacteria is on the finger.

Why It’s An Issue

In many cases, people tend to mistake the symptoms of syphilis or something else or believe that whatever they have will go away on its own. The ulcer, without treatment, does clear up after three weeks.

However, a skin rash will develop sometime later because the pathogens have spread to the entire body because of the bloodstream. Skin sores, of various types, are likely to develop. One person may have knobby sores, others scaly and others reddish. The rashes can occur on the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet. They can easily be distinguished from an allergic rash, as they don’t itch.

This is the disease’s second stage.

During the tertiary stage, the liver, stomach, respiratory system, bones, muscles and internal organs are also affected. If still left untreated, it could cause the development of a syphilitic node on the aorta, which then causes the life-threatening condition called aortic aneurysm.

Since syphilis is a systemic disease, the fourth stage could cause irreversible effects including brain changes, decrease in liver function, paralysis and heart inflammation. Approximately 25 percent of syphilis patients will also suffer from brain inflammation (encephalitis) because the cells and neural pathways have become damaged. Many well-known individuals are thought to have suffered from this condition such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Catherine the Great of Russia and Ludwig van Beethoven.

It’s also not unheard for the disease to have a person’s eyesight.

How Is Syphilis Treated?

Even though there is a rise in the number of STD cases, including syphilis, it’s still a rather touchy subject to most people. A person infected with the disease may be shunned upon. In fact, HIV is widely more accepted than syphilis. At this time, the only real course of treatment for syphilis is penicillin.

Health officials are worried that syphilis could one day become resistant to penicillin, which would have devastating consequences to the world. There have been efforts to create other antibiotics to cure the disease.

Money Is Necessary For Fighting The Disease

Despite its long-standing history, many people have forgotten about the disease. This is why it’s so dangerous. Although it can be treated, the disease has not been eradicated. The only surefire to slow down its progression is through education, counseling, therapy and diagnostics.

The condom is the best protection against the spread of the disease (condoms are ideal for all STDs like HIV). However, education and research are still a good part of slowing down its progression. The Center for Sexual Health and Medicine have made gathering syphilis information its primary priority, but efforts still need to be made.

All this takes money. Governments around the world are not focused on the long-term effects the money can have. Researchers need money now to see breakthroughs five to 10 years from now. Every possible protection must be made against STDs. For example, researchers could develop a vaccine for HIV, which could be included in preventative health exams.

If applied to syphilis, it would be a decline in the number of cases for the disease as well as other STDs.


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