Definition of Syphilis
Syphilis: A sexually transmitted disease caused by Treponema pallidum, a microscopic organism called a spirochete. This worm-like, spiral-shaped organism infects people by burrowing into the moist mucous membranes of the mouth or genitals. From there, the spirochete produces a non-painful ulcer known as a chancre. There are three stages of syphilis:
Diagnosis is by blood test, either the rapid plasma reagin (RPR) or Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL) test. Treatment is with antibiotics.
Syphilis remains a major health problem. About 12 million new cases of syphilis occur every year. More than 90% of them are in developing nations where congenital syphilis remains a leading cause of stillbirths and newborn deaths. In North America and Western Europe, syphilis is disproportionately common and rising among men who have sex with men and among persons who use cocaine or other illicit drugs.
The name "syphilis" was coined by Hieronymus Fracastorius (Girolamo Fracastoro). Fracastorius was a true Renaissance man; he wrote on the temperature of wines, the rise of the Nile, poetry, the mind, and the soul; he was an astronomer, geographer, botanist, mathematician, philosopher and, last but not least in the present context, a physician. In 1530 he published the poem "Syphilis sive morbus gallicus" (Syphilis or the French Disease) in which the name of the disease first appeared. Perhaps more importantly, Fracastorius went on in 1546 to write "On Contagion" ("De contagione et contagiosis morbis et curatione"), the first known discussion of the phenomenon of contagious infection: a landmark in the history of infectious disease.
Last Editorial Review: 5/13/2016
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