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Syphilis in Europe Is Blamed on Christopher Columbus

Columbus and syphilis

Although it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead, experts believe that the presence of syphilis in Europe can be blamed on Christopher Columbus, and more specifically, his crew. New research indicates that syphilis originated in the New World, and that Columbus brought it back to the Old World on his return voyage.

Columbus and his men “discovered” syphilis

In an earlier study (2004) published in the Proceedings Biological Sciences, the authors noted that syphilis first appeared in Europe in 1495, and it arrived with a vengeance. It wasn’t until more than 50 years that the disease settled into a milder, chronic condition.

The authors also noted that “the severe early symptoms may have been the result of the disease being introduced into a new host population without any resistance mechanisms.”

Now new research indicates that the men who introduced the disease were from the crew of Columbus’ ships.

The investigators who arrived at this conclusion thoroughly evaluated all 54 published reports of pre-Columbian, Old World treponemal disease (caused by bacterium of the genus Trepenoma, such as T. pallidum, which causes syphilis). They determined that the problem with previous investigations was with the skeletons that had evidence of syphilis.

It appeared that the radio carbon dating of the skeletons was in error, and after the researchers reevaluated the remains, they determined there was no solid evidence that syphilis had existed in Europe prior to 1492.

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They then concluded that “the evidence keeps accumulating that a progenitor [originator] of syphilis came from the New World with Columbus’ crew and rapidly evolved into the venereal disease that remains with us today.”

Why should anyone today care how syphilis appeared in Europe? Molly Zuckerman, one of the study’s authors and who is currently an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, explained that syphilis “was one of the first global diseases, and understanding where it came from and how it spread may help us combat diseases today.”

The search for the origins of syphilis in Europe may be likened to the debate about the origin of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. A greater understanding of such diseases may provide researchers with insight into new preventive and treatment approaches.

Syphilis is a genital ulcerative, sexually transmitted disease (STD) that causes serious complications if it is left untreated. Among pregnant women, untreated early syphilis results in perinatal death in up to 40% of cases, and among women who acquire the disease during the 4 years before they get pregnant, syphilis can lead to infection of the fetus in 80% of cases.

The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 12 million people per year are infected by syphilis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the total number of reported syphilis cases in the United States increased from 44,830 to 45,834 during 2009-2010.

Does this new evidence that Columbus brought syphilis to Europe settle the matter? Not according to Zuckerman, who noted that “the current evidence is pretty definitive, but we shouldn’t close the book and say we’re done with the subject.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Harper KN et al. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 2011; 146(S53): 99-133
Knell RJ. Proceedings. Biological Sciences 2004 May 7; 271(Suppl 4): S174-76

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons



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