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article imageColumbus first brought syphilis to Europe from the new World

By Kesavan Unnikrishnan     Jan 8, 2012 in Health
A new study published on origin of syphilis reports that the sexually transmitted disease was carried to Europe aboard Christopher Columbus' ships as they returned home from the New World.
The study conducted by Emory University in Atlanta analysed skeletal evidence in 54 published reports thought to show evidence of the disease in Europe prior to 1492. Detailed analysis of these reports showed that the disease did not exist prior to the explorer's return.
The first recorded case of syphilis occurred in Europe in 1495 , two years after Columbus landed in Spain in 1493. Initial cases of the disease were severe which researchers say may have been the result of the disease being introduced into a new population without any resistance mechanisms. It took more than 50 years for the disease to settle into a milder, chronic condition.
The research team was led by George Armelagos, a skeletal biologist at Emory University .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. All these skeletal material had come from coastal regions where seafood was a big part of the diet. Here 'marine reservoir effect' of eating seafood containing 'old carbon' can throw off radiocarbon dating by hundreds of years.
Kristin Harper, one of the study's contributors says:
Once we adjusted for the marine signature, all of the skeletons that showed definite signs of [the] disease appeared to be dated to after Columbus returned to Europe. Though it may be difficult to believe that such a small group of sailors — possibly even Columbus himself — could become the source for one of Europe's most devastating epidemics, it just goes to show how vulnerable human populations can become when a new pathogen is introduced.
Syphilis is a genital ulcerative, sexually transmitted disease (STD) that causes serious complications if it is left untreated. The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 12 million people per year are infected by syphilis.
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