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The Other Plague


Long before AIDS, there was another dreaded sexually transmitted disease that was chronic and incurable. It has been called by many names: the Great Pox, the French disease, and syphilis. Syphilis is still an important disease. It is more common among gay and bisexual men. It can cause serious illness, but if it is detected it is very easy to cure.

Although AIDS is caused by a virus and syphilis is caused by a bacteria, and their symptoms are very different, they are similar in many ways. Both have been highly feared and stigmatized by society. They both affect many different organs in the body. Both are chronic diseases that can go undetected for many years, with very few symptoms, while they reek havoc on the body. You may contract and pass these illnesses to others while never knowing you have them. Having syphilis makes you much more likely to contract HIV and vice versa. People with AIDS are much more likely to have chronic syphilis and to develop severe complications from syphilis, such as meningitis and paralysis.

Syphilis is caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum. It is mostly spread by sexual contact, but it can even be spread through kissing, touching, or through blood transfusion. It is also spread from mother to baby across the placenta. Infection occurs when one comes in contact with a syphilis lesion on an infected partner. It is most easily spread to mucous membranes or soft genital skin, but can initially infect any area of skin that comes in contact within a lesion (such as a finger). Transmission by blood transfusion used to be common, but because of testing and refrigeration of blood samples this is extremely rare. It is unknown if it can be passed through sharing needles.

Untreated syphilis infection passes through three stages. The first stage is called primary syphilis. It occurs10 to 90 days after exposure. It starts as a firm painless ulcer occurring at the site of contact with the infected partner. This is usually on the genitals, but as noted above it can also be on the mouth, hands, or any other area of contact. This ulcer is full of bacteria and is infectious. Because the ulcer is painless and may occur in the vagina, rectum, or other difficult to see areas, many people never know that they have it.

The ulcer disappears on its own, without treatment, but the syphilis is not gone. Two to six weeks later, secondary syphilis begins. It may start with low-grade fever, fatigue, headache and body aches. There is usually a rash of small red bumps on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. They may leave small scars. Sometimes hair falls out in small “mouth-eaten” patches on the scalp. Small ulcers or red bumps often appear on the genitals and mucous membranes of the mouth. These and the rash are highly contagious. More severe problems such as hearing loss, meningitis, jaundice, kidney problems, and eye damage may occur. These symptoms usually resolve even if not treated, however the nerve damage and hearing loss is permanent. These episodes of secondary syphilis can re-occur periodically.

If the syphilis is still untreated, it will become a chronic infection that eventually advances to late stage or tertiary syphilis. This causes gradual but serious damage to many body organs, over 5 to 30 years. Syphilis attacks the heart and arteries, causing heart valve problems, heart failure, and aneurysms. It can affect the brain and nerves in many ways. Early on it can cause a type of meningitis, with severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, confusion, and impairment of hearing and vision. After 10 to 30 years or more, it can cause a dementia similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Nerve damage to the legs can occur, causing lightening pains, numbness, weakness, balance problems, and even paralysis. Symptoms can be vague; therefore syphilis is difficult to diagnose at this stage. AIDS greatly increases your risk of developing this tertiary syphilis.

Despite how serious and debilitating syphilis can be, it is very easy to treat. It can still be killed very easily with penicillin, especially in its early stages. Later, tertiary syphilis is more difficult to treat, requiring long courses of intravenous or intramuscular penicillin. Also, it is much more difficult to treat in people with AIDS. Partial treatment may reduce the severity of tertiary syphilis, but will not prevent it altogether. Since most people now take antibiotics from time to time, severe tertiary syphilis is now very rare in the U.S. but milder tertiary syphilis still occurs.

If you have had unprotected sex, you are at risk for syphilis and should be tested. It is a sensitive and inexpensive blood test. This is particularly important if you have HIV. Early detection and treatment is best. This should also be a reminder that even if you are HIV positive, you still need to practice safer sex, not only to protect others from HIV, but also to protect yourself from other serious STDs. Get tested. Play safe.

To ensure you are safe get a syphilis testing today.

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