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Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphillis, courtesty CDC, via Wikipedia

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial disease. Well known since the 17th century, it has recently become less of a health concern due to the development of antibiotics, treatment with which cure the disease in almost every case unless the disease has progressed to its final stages.

Syphilis is almost always transmitted through sexual contact with an infected person, who is almost always displaying the sores on the genitals typical of the disease. The use of condoms is usually effective in preventing the transmission of the disease between partners. In females, the sores are often inside the vagina and therefore more difficult to detect. In males, the sores most often appear on the penis.

The sores will spontaneously heal in a few weeks, but the bacteria will continue to grow within the body, forming granulomas which protect the bacteria from the body's immune system. In addition, syphilis can go through long periods of latency between outbreaks where, although the disease can be treated and tested for, it is not contagious and shows no symptoms.

If the disease is allowed to progress, it will usually start attacking the nerves and brain, causing nerve damage, personality change and eventually dementia and death.

Prior to the beginning of the 20th century, there was no effective treatment for the disease. In the 20th century, the development of arsenic-based drugs did allow the disease to be treated if it were caught before it caused nerve damage. However, such drugs were not effective against late stage syphilis. However, penicillin turned out to be an effective treatment for the disease even in its late stages, and remains the preferred treatment to this day, with almost all strains of the disease being susceptible to this antibiotic.

Patients with syphilis are usually required to tell the treating physician the names of their sexual contacts so that they can be advised by health departments to get treated for the disease.

Syphillis at Wikipedia

Syphilis at Mayo Clinic

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