STI Awareness: Syphilis
For centuries, syphilis had no effective cure. The best available treatment consisted of continual doses of mercury, which slowed the disease’s progression but was toxic to humans as well. It wasn’t until 1910 that scientists led by Paul Ehrlich synthesized an arsenic-based chemical that was marketed under the trade name Salvarsan. While it was certainly several steps up from mercury, it had to be given in small doses to avoid its toxic effects; it also had many unpleasant side effects, ranging from rashes to liver damage. Two years later, Neosalvarsan was released, with milder side effects, and was hailed as a “magic bullet” by journalists.
Unfortunately, this treatment regimen could take weeks, months, or even more than a year to administer, and it involved not just arsenicals but compounds based on mercury and bismuth as well, all with their own dangerous side effects. Malaria fever therapy, popular from the 1920s until the adoption of penicillin as a cure for syphilis, was used on patients with an advanced form of the infection, based on the idea that infecting a patient with malaria would induce a fever that could somehow kill T. pallidum. In the meantime, although arsenic-based therapies improved, such treatments were too expensive for most patients, and the long-term regimen was off-putting for many. This helped keep a great number of quack doctors in business. Various tonics, “blood purifiers,” treatments involving electric shock, and other alternative remedies were popular, but ultimately ineffective. Unfortunately, because syphilis goes into a latent phase, many people undergoing such treatments believed they had indeed been cured. As a health official noted in 1937,
[Q]uacks flourish and the sale of patent medicines for syphilis has become big business because even the severe and recognizable early symptoms usually are transitory. No matter what nostrum is taken; no matter how inadequate the treatment given, eventually these early signs and symptoms of the disease disappear. When they disappear, thousands of syphilis victims think themselves cured, not realizing that instead of cure, this marks the end of the period when the best chance for it is possible.
Although treatment for syphilis and other STIs is more accessible and effective than it was a century ago, bogus cures still abound, taking advantage of people’s embarrassment over receiving treatment from a medical provider.
READ MORE: http://blog.advocatesaz.org/2011/09/06/sti-awareness-syphilis/