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Syphilis

Syphilis is a potentially serious but rare disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It affects about one person in 12,000 in anyone year, ninety percent of them men, mainly homosexuals. The disease has three separate stages, the first two being highly contagious. As well as being transmitted through sexual contact, the infection can also pass through the placenta, causing congenital syphilis in an unborn child; but this no longer occurs in countries where antenatal screening is routine.

Symptoms

The first symptom is the appearance of a painless sore, or chancre, at the site of sexual contact, several weeks after exposure. In heterosexual men, the chancre is usually on the glans of the penis or inside the foreskin, though it may develop on the shaft of the penis. In homosexual men, the anus is the commonest site. In women, the chancre can occur on the vulva or cervix. Almost any mucous membrane can be affected, however, including the lips and mouth. The sore may not be noticed, and in any case disappears of its own accord within a few weeks.

About two months later the symptoms of the secondary stage appear: a pale, non-itchy rash develops, usually on the trunk but sometimes on the face and the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. There may also be a fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, headaches, nausea and possibly hair loss. Infectious ulcers (condylomata) often appear in the mouth or on the genitals. After several weeks the rash disappears spontaneously, and the disease enters a symptomless or dormant phase.

Tertiary syphilis, which appears up to twenty years later, may cause heart disease, brain damage, paralysis and personality deterioration or insanity. If cured in the primary or secondary stage, syphilis does not cause permanent damage, but tertiary syphilis can only be arrested and may ultimately prove fatal.

Treatment is with antibiotics, usually penicillin. Sexual relations should be avoided until the sufferer is cured.

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