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There are many stories that claim Christopher Columbus, the great explorer, was the one to bring syphilis to the new world. Others refute this claim and say that this disease was already present in the continental United States before his crew’s arrival in 1492. And of course, some scientists believe that syphilis was common in both the new and old worlds. Either way, syphilis began to ravage Europe to the point that by the beginning of the 16th Century, one-third of Paris was infected. Today, syphilis is regarded as being the first global disease.
The point of this tale is that syphilis has been around for hundreds of years, is easily spread and people of all sexual practices and ethnicities have fallen victim to its effects. Back in the day, Columbus and his crew were the center of syphilis’s attention, but today it is you and your crew. This STD is one of the fastest rising in the gay male community and there seems to be no slowing it down, unless we make some basic changes, fast!
First off, unlike most sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis is caused by a bacteria, and not a virus. It is transmitted through direct contact with an open sore, which can be internal, like inside of the anus or mouth, or externally located along the penis or lips. This means that transmission from an infected person is pretty easy through sexual intercourse and/or sexual contact. For the sake of ease in understanding, think of syphilis being able to live anywhere your body could touch in an intimate manner. For this reason, anyone who knows or believes that they have contracted syphilis or have open sores, should refrain from any sexual contact or intercourse, and immediately seek medical care.
Known by some scientists as “the great imitator”, syphilis can mimic physical symptoms from other illnesses such as painless bumps, ingrown hairs, rashes on the palms, and hands of the infected’s feet and even the flu.
There is even something called ocular syphilis, which occurs when the infection has contact with the eye(s). Without proper treatment, permanent blindness could result.
Luckily, syphilis is very easily treated, if caught early enough. But before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at the stages of the illness, talk about why this STD is such a hazard to the gay male community, and how you can avoid this illness all together.
This is just around initial infection. Physical symptoms such as a rash, or painless bumps may appear at the site of infection, lasting between three (3) to six (6) weeks, before disappearing…with or without treatment. Detection and treatment at this point is critical as it reduces not only the newly infected’s illness but also his ability to infect others.
This is the period that many do, or should, realize that something is wrong medically. This stage can begin as early as the ending of the primary stage, when sores/bumps are beginning to heal or later after the three (3) to six (6) week period has past. During the secondary stage, more serious conditions can develop, including mucous membrane lesions (sores) inside of the mouth and/or anus and skin rashes along the hands or bottom of the feet may also develop.
Some of the other physical symptoms which you may detect are “flu like” and include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, fatigue, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and even patchy hair loss. As with the primary stage, with time, these symptoms will go away, with or without treatment. But it should be noted that not all guys will develop any or all of these symptoms or even notice because of syphilis’s amazing ability to mask and mimic. This is why regular testing for all STDs’, not just HIV, for sexually active guys is a very important practice every three (3) months.
If you had developed any or all of the mentioned symptoms, at this point, they have disappeared. But syphilis still thrives inside of your body. If you do not receive proper medical treatment, this illness can live on in your body for years and even decades. You also are still infectious and able to pass syphilis on to others if any sores reappear. Just because the symptoms have gone away does not mean that you are cured. You must see a medical professional, be treated and take the medication as directed until complete.
It is very rare for someone to develop late stage syphilis as it usually takes decades to occur, between ten (10) to even thirty (30) years, after infection. Symptoms include difficulty moving muscles, paralysis, blindness and dementia. At this point, syphilis may even begin to effect your internal organs and finally cause death.
Ok, we all have heard about how HIV/AIDS has effected and affected our community for 40 years. For those that are new to the party, back in the eighties, HIV was called GRID, or Gay Related Cancer. Right under our noses this little virus began to grow and kill off some of our best and brightest; our lovers, our friends and even the famous. There was little that we could do to slow down this infection as the virus had yet to be detected. This is not the case with syphilis. Not only do we know what this bacteria is, we know how it is contracted and how to treat it. But, as a community, we are letting ourselves fall into bad habits of not protecting ourselves properly during sex, being tested (often) and treated if infected. We can change all of this. Here are some disturbing facts to help set the mood.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states “between 2013 and 2014, the number of reported primary and secondary cases increased by 15%. Men accounted for 91% of all new cases, and Men who have sex with Men were the majority at 75% when sex of partner was known. 83%, when unknown.
William Smith, Executive Director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, states that the rate of syphilis infections in 2013 was the highest on record since 1996 and almost entirely in men, and mainly gay and bi men; no overall increase was seen in women!
The well known, kind of gay, neighborhood of Chelsea, in New York City, reported the highest rate of syphilis cases in the city and the entire country for 2013 (the latest year published by the New York Department of Health). This rate was six (6) times the average rate for the city of New York. This rate also beat out such large cities such as San Francisco.
Syphilis and HIV are traveling buddies. Many who are infected with one, have a high rate of becoming infected with the other, as the behaviors associated with contracting either STD are the same.
Co-infection with HIV is very common in gay males, in fact, 51% of the cases of primary and secondary syphilis diagnosed in 2014 were also HIV positive, as reported by the CDC.
The highest rates of infection were among black men, although the largest increases were reported among Hispanic and white men.
It can not be stressed enough that the only sure way to keep from contracting any STD is to practice abstinence and refrain from any sexual contact, with anyone, at any time. For those that choose not to take this challenging route, routine testing for syphilis and other STD’s is the second best method. But, we at GMJ believe that using your brain and your words should be considered your best defense against contracting this illness. Speaking with your potential sexual partners, honestly, about syphilis and when either of you were last tested can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Finally, there is the usage of condoms. Latex is the preferred barrier to protect you from contracting syphilis, but please remember that condoms only protect you from what is covered, and they must be used correctly each and every time. Meaning that the condom must cover the entire penis, from head to shaft, and any and all open sores for the entire duration of the sexual act. For example: anal sex. If a lesion is located on the penis or inside of the anus a condom would be useful. But they obviously do not protect from other areas that may have open sores such as inside of the mouth.
Understand that humans and condoms are not perfect and mistakes and errors are common. Use your eyes as much as any of your other senses.
A simple blood test, or swab of an active sore, will determine if you have been infected with syphilis. If the test is positive, a proper physician will prescribe antibiotics, most likely penicillin. A single dose is usually perfect for curing the early stages of syphilis, but larger dosages may be necessary for latent or late stages. Regular blood tests will still be required for up to a year. Inform your doctor if you are allergic to penicillin.
If you do not currently have a doctor and would like advice on how to find one, click HERE.
NOTE: Contracting syphilis once will not protect you from contracting it again.
At GMJ we pride ourselves on being gay men from the community, who are still active and living our lives, just like you. With his consent, a member of our staff has allowed us to tell you his syphilis story. We have changed his name, because it is none of your damn business.
After not ever being tested for syphilis, “Joe”, who had not been sexually active for a number of years, was convinced to get a full medical work-up. To his surprise, he tested positive for latent stage syphilis. Because of the length of his self-imposed celibacy, this result was stunning. Joe’s doctor believes that he had been infected with the disease for years, without his knowledge.
The treatment was intense, requiring an over night stay in the hospital, and a month’s treatment of antibiotics through an IV, with a nurse visiting regularly to clean and change his dressing. This tube in his arm had to stay inside of him, everyday, no matter what. From bathing, work, to the gym and even the supermarket, Joe had to keep his line in through every aspect of his daily life. After the month ended, he began his regular testing and check-ups for the next year. Joe now has a clean bill of health. But every now and again, we still have to hear his sorry story.
But, not only did syphilis cause Joe pain and discomfort for a month, it also shrunk his wallet because he had a co-pay from his insurance company that amounted to almost two (2) thousand dollars. Yes, really!
Joe was kind enough to allow us to post pictures of the medication and the IV in his arm.
Sexual intercourse and conduct are adult activities, which mean that they come with great responsibilities as much as intense pleasures. Not just to yourself, but also to others. Sexually transmitted diseases are a fact of sexual life, but most are easily avoided if you put your big head in the game. If you have contracted any STD over the course of your life, or do in the future, it does not make you a bad person but we all need to learn from our individual and community missteps. Condoms are a great way to reduce the risk of STD infection but they are not the only tool that should be in your prevention box.
Recognizing that high amounts of drug and alcohol usage, not only decreases your natural inhibitions but also your judgment is a good start, but also taking personal responsibility for your health should be primary.
You need to take the lead in maintaining a proper STD testing routine.
You also should take the time to inspect the penis, anus or mouth that you are about to become sexually intimate with. Who doesn’t like to play doctor?
And you must own the responsibility that comes with contracting any STD and get yourself treated, while abstaining from sex until cleared by a medical professional.
Syphilis is just like other STD’s. It is contracted through some sort of sexual contact or intercourse. Latex condoms may add some protection but they are not perfect and should not be your only line of defense against this or any other sexually transmitted disease. Regular testing, at least every three (3) months, knowledge of the illness, how to prevent it, as well as being able to honestly discuss your sexual history and STD status is the only sure fire way that we can keep this illness from become a plague. Many illnesses have become resistant to penicillin. Just sayin.