By Priya Chetan

Venereal diseases are very dangerous to one’s health and often cause permanent disabilities. The symptoms of syphilis affect the entire body. For one, the circulatory system’s aortic tissue could be damaged losing its elastic properties which could ultimately lead to an aneurysm. In fact in 1916, this was the primary cause for blood vessel diseases and apoplectic strokes that occurred prematurely (MOH Willesden 1916). The nervous system is also damaged. Nerve fibers in the spine and peripheral nerves are destroyed and there is a thing called “general paralysis of the insane” which is when brain cells specifically are affected. Crippling joint destruction is common and some patients go blind (MOH Greenwich 1967).

Syphilis can be inherited, image from from Hyde’s A manual of syphilis and the venereal diseases

Most think this is something that affects adults but children can also be infected. Pregnant women who have syphilis can transmit the disease from the blood to the child although some pregnancies either get aborted or are stillborn. The children who survive may also suffer congenital syphilis and some side effects of this include mental deficiency, blindness, deafness, and various bone, skin, and visceral lesions. By 1946 this was less common in England as more preventative methods were available (MOH Heston and Isleworth 1914 pg 46). The high rate of mortality in infants affected by syphilis is caused by severe undernourishment which causes a significantly lower body weight which is more than 60% of the normal weight the infant should be. Another cause is atrophy which is when the cells degenerate or waste away affecting tissue an organs (MOH Heston and Isleworth 1914 pg 45).

Not a direct symptom, but interestingly enough, marriages would be considered invalid if the carrier of the disease had not disclosed to the partner which was made possible by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1950. This was probably due to the severity and it was important for partners to be aware that they may catch this disease by sexually engaging with an infected individual (MOH Greenwich 1967).

In a sample of 61 children with deafness associated with syphilis, other symptoms also found included: ocular manifestations, interstitial keratitis, iritis choroiditis, optic atrophy, aural manifestations, deafness before eye symptoms and deafness after eye symptoms varied, vertigo, nasal manifestations, nasal caries, adhesions, deformity (saddle nose),  stigmata, Hutchinson teeth, cranial caries, tibial nodes, joint affections, palatal ulceration, scarring of oral angles (MOH London County Council 1913).

Image result for syphilis symptoms
Syphilis of the mouth and tongue from Hyde’s A manual of syphilis and the venereal diseases

A wide variety of symptoms have been mentioned but these symptoms arise at different stages. The four stages of syphilis are primary, secondary, tertiary, and latent. The primary stage is painless and is categorized by a sore arising on the body at the origin point of the bacteria that causes syphilis. This stage is highly contagious, and the symptoms usually show up within about 3 weeks, but can appear up to 3 months after exposure. Since sores are painless, they may go unnoticed. Men generally get them around the penis and woman around the vagina. The sore lasts from 3 to 6 weeks but even after it goes away, the person is still affected and able to spread the disease (Stages of Syphilis). Secondary stage is when all of the various symptoms start to arise particularly fever but rashes, lymphadenopathy, and genital or perineal condyloma latum are also common. Tertiary stage also referred to the late stage occurs years after the person was originally infected and this is what causes the major bodily issues seen such as gummatous disease, cardiovascular disease, or central nervous system problems. The latent stage is when although still contagious, no symptoms are apparent. The only way to know if a person has syphilis during the latent stage is to get serological testing of the blood (Diagnosis and management of syphilis.).

To reduce chances of getting secondhand syphilis, bedding, clothes, other fabrics were disinfected at places such as a Disinfecting Station provided by the Council in England. Steam exposure under pressure to materials 15 to 20 pounds and would be done for fifteen minutes above atmospheric pressure. Soiled materials are boiled for ten minutes at a pressure of ten pounds above atmospheric pressure in a washing machine. Leather and furs are disinfected by a formalin cupboard. Whole rooms are disinfected by gaseous formaldehyde and sulfur was used in the case of verminous infected rooms. Interestingly enough, many books were burned because they could not be effectively disinfected resulting in the loss of many records (MOH Kensington 1927).

In 1967 England, the young felt pressured to conform to a promiscuous sexual norm resulting in high rates of syphilis. These ideas came from television, movies, and even advertising. There were fears of venereal diseases but there were treatment options for syphilis that ranged over two years. Over time, people were having more partners because penicillin was thought to be a quick easy fix meaning catching syphilis wasn’t as bad of a thing as it used to be. Stigma was lowered and so more people may have been exposed but due to new treatment options, syphilis was deemed a nightmare of the past (MOH Kensington and Chelsea 1967) . To combat syphilis, a main goal of doctors was to detect syphilis before the major symptoms started to arise during the infectious stages. Syphilis could be cured if caught early on. This way, treatment would be most effective, and incidence of cases would decrease. Blood tests were the best way to do this and these control tactics did show a decrease in severity of patient’s outcomes (syphilis control).

Medical Office of Health Reports

MOH Greenwich 1967

MOH Kensington 1927

MOH Kensington 1937

MOH Kensington and Chelsea 1967

MOH Heston and Isleworth 1914 pg 45

MOH Heston and Isleworth 1914 pg 46

MOH London County Council 1913

MOH Willesden 1916

Secondary Sources

Brown, David L., and Jennifer E. Frank. “Diagnosis and management of syphilis.” American family physician 68, no. 2 (2003): 283-290.

Cates Jr, Willard, Richard B. Rothenberg, and Joseph H. Blount. “Syphilis control: The historic context and epidemiologic basis for interrupting sexual transmission oftreponema pallidum.” Sexually transmitted diseases 23, no. 1 (1996): 68-75.

Stages of Syphilis.” Stages of Syphilis | Michigan Medicine. Accessed November 10, 2019.