Syphilis Sets Sail

SRxA’s Word on Health has heard that history may about to be rewritten.  According to researchers at Emory University, not only did Christopher Columbus discover the New World, he also brought back one of the world’s most feared diseases.

A new review of the origin of syphilis supports the theory that the sexually transmitted disease was carried to Europe aboard Christopher Columbus’ ships.

Syphilis has been around for 500 years,” says study co-leader Molly Zuckerman, assistant professor at Mississippi State University. “People started debating where it came from shortly afterwards, and they haven’t stopped since.

Although syphilis was one of the first global diseases, understanding where it came from and how it spread may help us combat diseases today. Prior to Columbus’ voyage in 1492, syphilis did not exist in Europe or the Old World.

After analyzing the evidence from 54 reports, the team from Emory found that before Columbus’ historic voyage to the New World, skeletal material lacked the diagnostic characteristics for chronic syphilis, such as small holes in the skull and long bones.

Their appraisal, published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, suggests that someone sailing with Columbus carried Treponema – the bacteria that causes syphilis back to Europe. Treponema can cause other diseases, such as yaws and pinta, that are spread through skin-to-skin or oral contact in tropical climates.

Their theory is that the bacteria mutated into the sexually transmitted form to survive in the cooler and more sanitary conditions of Europe.

In reality, it appears that venereal syphilis was the byproduct of two different populations meeting and exchanging a pathogen,” Zuckerman said. “It was an adaptive event, the natural selection of a disease, independent of morality or blame.”

That said, we’re still blaming Columbus!