Syphilis: the comeback nobody expected


For centuries, syphilis ravaged populations the world over, from the first great epidemic in the 15th century through countless other breakouts thereafter. For over 400 years, the only treatment was mercury, offering poor results.

In 1909, Paul Erlich made history by developing the first effective treatment: arsphenamine. This was then replaced by penicillin in 1945, and since then, treating the disease has been easy, as long as it is caught early.

Yet despite its long history, syphilis can initially mislead doctors leading to misdiagnosis, which causes unnecessary suffering and further damage to the patient. In the third stage of the disease, which can manifest after a latent period lasting anywhere from 1 to 30 years, the symptoms can become extremely severe. Patients can develop cardiovascular and neurological conditions, as well as suffering soft-tissue deterioration.

This nearly forgotten disease is, today, back in the headlines. For the first time since the early 2000s, there are more cases of syphilis in Europe than there are of HIV, with numbers rising by 70% since 2010.