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article imageDid Columbus bring syphilis back from the New World?

By Karen Graham     Dec 12, 2014 in Health
Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. But on returning home, his sailors unknowingly were carrying a disease never before known in Europe, syphilis. By 1495, the disease, called the "Great Pox," had spread across Europe, killing five million people.
There is now scientific evidence that not only did Christopher Columbus and his crew introduce the Old World to the New World, but they brought home an unwanted disease. Recent studies now say Columbus and his men brought syphilis back to Europe after their famous voyage in 1492.
At that time in history, there was a non-sexually transmitted subspecies of the bacterium called Treponema pallidum that causes syphilis, already present in Renaissance Europe, or the Old World. But it was a non-threatening skin disease, similar to Yaws. After the return of Columbus's crew from the New World, many of the sailors joined up with the army of France's Charles VIII in 1494 for the invasion of Italy, sometimes called the Italian War of 1494. Many of the men were already infected with syphilis.
French troops and artillery entering Naples in 1495.
French troops and artillery entering Naples in 1495.
Melchionne Ferraiolo
After their victory in Naples, the army, many of them mercenaries, returned to their homes, spreading syphilis across the continent as they went, and this resulted in the "Great Pox," that eventually was to claim the lives of 5.0 million people. Commentators at that time described: “dark green boils that stood out like acorns, accompanied by a stench so vile that if you smelt it you would imagine yourself infected, and by pains so severe that it was as if the sick had laid upon a fire”.
The earliest known medical illustration of people with syphilis  Vienna  1498.
The earliest known medical illustration of people with syphilis, Vienna, 1498.
Bartholomäus Steber
The Great Pox was known by a variety of names, and people tried their best to blame others for their misfortune. The French called it the “Italian" or “Neapolitan disease” and the Italians called it the “Spanish disease," and the English called it the "French disease." But it has come to be known as the "Great Pox." In 2011, Molly Zuckerman, a researcher at Mississippi State University, while discussing the spread of syphilis said, "It was one of the first global diseases, and understanding where it came from and how it spread may help us combat diseases today."
Four theories for where the Great Pox originated
On December 8, Rob Knell, a Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, posted an article in The Conversation. In it, he refutes the notion of some scientists who say bones recently found in Croatia showing signs of syphilitic disease pre-date Columbus, proving that the disease has been around since early Roman times.
One theory says it was always around, but was misdiagnosed, like leprosy. A second theory says it evolved from a less virulent disease not spread by sexual contact. One other theory says it may have come from Africa. But the most convincing is the Columbus theory. And DNA sequencing proves this theory.
A Canadian infectious disease specialist, Dr. Michael Silverman, who leads a medical team into the rainforests of Guyana each year, supplied the specimens for the study. The people he works with in Guyana have had little or no contact with the outside world, and were perfect for the study. There, he discovered children "with ulcer-like lesions on their arms and legs, just like you get with syphilis but in the wrong place," he told CBC.
Painless ulcer with raised edges corresponding to a primary yaws skin lesion on an infant s leg. (Pa...
Painless ulcer with raised edges corresponding to a primary yaws skin lesion on an infant's leg. (Papua New Guinea, 2009)
Lihir Medical Centre, Dr Oriol Mitjá.
Blood tests showed the children had Yaws, a skin disease thought to be extinct in the Western Hemisphere. Yaws are an "older cousin" to syphilis, that was a relatively harmless skin infection until Europeans became infected and it turned into a virulent disease. So, how did this happen?
"They couldn't really catch it because they had long sleeves, long pants," Silverman said. "So the only way they could get it, the only time they would expose their skin and might touch somebody was when they dropped their pants to have sex."
"In this case we have an example of a disease that went the other way, from Native Americans to Europeans," said Dr. Kristin Harper, a researcher in molecular genetics at Atlanta's Emory University and the principal investigator in the study. "So that's especially interesting, I think."
It is indeed, an interesting theory, isn't it?
More about Columbus, New world, Dna sequencing, great pox, Treponema pallidum
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