By Arush Emmanuel Michael
In Greek mythology, a king named King Alcihtous had a shepherd to tend to his flock of sheep. This shepherd was angry at Apollo for drying up all the trees and destroying the water springs which were essential for the sheep he tended to. He vowed not to worship Apollo but instead his king, this infuriated Apollo. The shepherd's name was Syphilus, in honour of his name, Apollo cursed the people with a disease that ravaged the land called syphilis. King Alcihtous along with his citizens were affected by the disease. Ammerice, who was a nymph, suggested the people offer sacrifices to Apollo. Syphilus was one of those sacrifices along with the tree of Guaiac which used to be a medicine for the treatment of syphilis. The term ‘Syphilis’ therefore, takes origins from this abstract titled ‘Syphilis sive Morbusgallicus’ by Girolamo Fracastoro who was a poet in Verona.
Syphilis has always been a disease that has stigmatised people in society and cornered the afflicted. The blame for the disease has been passed around like the disease itself, the British used to call it ‘French pocks’ while the Russians used to call it the ‘Polish disease’. The origins of the disease however can be attributed to two theories. One theory also known as the pre-Columbian hypothesis states that the disease was a result of the changes or mutations in bacteria that already existed in the ‘old world’ i.e. Europe. The second theory or the Columbian hypothesis states that Christopher Columbus and his fleet brought the disease from America or the ‘new world’. The Columbian hypothesis is widely accepted and has some proof in the terms of witnesses like Ruy Diaz (a physician) who stated that the pilot of Columbus had Syphilis when he arrived back in Spain.
As early as 1495, the disease had a stronghold all over Europe and started spreading like wildfire. There were a number of treatments prescribed for the same, however; the most notable one was Mercury or ‘Quicksilver’. Mercury was used for the first time in Verona and was given by various modalities, such as a cream that could be lathered on or an injection into the penis. The former was preferred by the general public due to obvious reasons. The failed treatment of syphilis with mercury led to the popular proverb:
“A Night with Venus, a Lifetime with Mercury”
So what exactly is Syphilis and how will you know you have the disease?
Syphilis spreads through sexual acts whether it is penetrative sex or oral sex. Homosexual men are a high-risk group for syphilis, oro-anal intercourse and oral sex seem to be important sources of infection for them. In the first stage of the infection known as primary syphilis, there will be the formation of a lesion which transforms into an ulcer on the genital organs or the mouth. The ulcer heals in a few weeks on its own if left untreated. In secondary syphilis, the bacteria keeps spreading in the person’s body and keeps developing, leading to a rash and skin lesions all over the body along with fever and general weakness. The disease then reduces in intensity again and may heal or it may continue developing. Syphilis developing further has harmful effects on the person’s heart and nervous system. These harmful effects in the last phase of syphilis can lead to the death of a person.
Syphilis is a dangerous disease that needs to be tackled at its first sign; otherwise, it can further develop into manifestations as stated above. For early treatment, if a person has a lesion on their genitals or their mouth they shouldn’t neglect it and go to their doctor immediately. If neglected, the ulcers do disappear but the disease doesn’t. That is one of the reasons why mercury was considered to be a treatment because the ulcer used to disappear after mercury application. Mercury was applied in the form of ‘Baxter’s cream’ which used to be an emulsion of lard, beeswax and mercury. The skin used to absorb only 1% of this cream, but what it did produce in abundance was toxic fumes. These fumes were so poisonous that even people in the patient’s vicinity could be affected. Mercury causes effects on the nervous system like irritability, tremors, fatigue and headache. Neurosyphilis, the last stage of syphilis also presents similar symptoms to mercury poisoning so the two could be confused during the so-called treatment of syphilis.
Modern medicine has moved leaps and bounds for the treatment of syphilis. Penicillin the wonder drug discovered by Alexander Fleming is the main treatment for syphilis today. Early identification of the disease is important and therefore one should always visit the doctor if you have symptoms of the disease. As far as prevention goes, syphilis can only be completely prevented with abstinence. However, abstinence is not really a solution so you can instead resort to safe sex practices. Multiple sexual partners should be avoided. Using condoms and dental dams while having sexual intercourse reduces the chances of contracting syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections. It is your choice if you decide to spend a night with Venus and risk a lifetime with mercury, just ensure that your exploration package has enough condoms in it.