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Radio Shows | Columbus and the Origin of Syphilis | mp3wmawav

When Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, what did he bring home besides an incredible discovery? Some scientists believe Columbus brought Syphilis to Europe where it evolved into the disease we know today.

Whether he did or not is debatable and has been for five hundred years. Some recent research may get us closer to an answer. First off - syphilis is a curable sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

When it first appeared in Europe people there blamed it on each other, and depending on who you were, called it the Venetian, Naples or French disease. There is some evidence of syphilis in Europe before the middle ages but the first epidemic occurred after Columbus' return in 1493.

Today three theories are debated. One - Columbus or other explorers bought it back from the New World.

Two - the disease was in the Old World but confused with another, like leprosy.

And three, that syphilis developed in both worlds from related diseases: Bejel in the Old World and yaws in the New World.

Recently a study of nearly 700 skeletons show syphilis may have indeed developed from yaws which could suggest Columbus did bring it with him. But other scientists claimed to have found skeletons in Europe showing evidence of syphilis far older than 1493.

Other research compared genetic information of 26 geographically scattered strains of the syphilis bacterium. It found today's syphilis is related to the South American strain which again shows it came from the New World.

Although Columbus' journal of his voyage reported no serious illness among his crew, many infected with syphilis do not have symptoms for years. No one may have known the returning heroes were infected with a bacterium that was to remain a scourge into the present day.

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Scientific American Magazine has a nice short article about the genetics of the syphilis bacterium and the genetic evidence that it is related to bacteria in the Americas.
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Public Broadcasting System has a web page for an episode from their show "Secrets of the Dead" that is entitled "The Syphilis Enigma" that has some excellent background information about the bacterium and the disease. The site include pictures of the bone lesions used to argue that Syphilis has been in Europe before Columbus returned from the Americas.
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Very complete articles on the subject of the origin of Syphilis are available at:
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For more information about Columbus, his biography and accomplishments can be found here.

To read excerpts from Columbus' Journal written on his voyage in 1492 go here.

For an extensive list of links about Columbus, the history of the time in which he lived and his voyages, visit here.


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