• Tue, Aug 21 2012

Porn Industry Syphilis Scare A Good Opportunity To Talk About This STI

I cannot think of syphilis without thinking of Toulouse-Lautrec and claw hands. Until this afternoon, those two things — that 19th century painter Toulouse Lautrec had it and that it can lead to claw hands — were about the extent of my knowledge about syphilis (and the bit about claw hands might not even be true*). With all the hot new sexually transmitted infections we have these days — HPV! Hepatitis B! — it’s easy to forget that syphilis still exists. But still exist it does, and apparently it’s plaguing the Los Angeles porn industry right now.

Plaguing might be a bit too strong a verb choice. So far, only one porn actor has tested positive for syphilis, but that’s enough to temporarily halt all porn production in Los Angeles at the moment. According to CBS News, a pornography trade group called the Free Speech Coalition called for a moratorium on filming Monday while other performers get tested, and producers have agreed (good job, guys).

Los Angeles County public health officials are also investigating “a possible outbreak,” after five possible cases of syphilis were reported last week. I’m betting a lot of you are as ignorant about syphilis as I am, so let’s explore the symptoms and treatments real quick, yeah?

Where it comes from: The bacteria that causes syphilis is called Treponema pallidum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s transmitted from person to person through direct contact with syphilis sores, which “occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum” but can also show up on the lips and in the mouth. Pregnant women can also pass it on to their babies.

Syphilis cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.

What it does: Hangs about and acts like a sneaky bastard in many people; you can get syphilis and not show any signs for years (though that doesn’t mean it’s not doing damage). There are four stages of syphilis, and the primary stage is usually marked by a single sore. A single sore can be hella hard to notice, which is why many people don’t realize they’re infected at first and continue to spread the disease. Making things more difficult, the time between infection and this sore showing up can be anywhere from 10 to 90 days, and then after a few weeks it will heal without treatment.

Without treatment, however, syphilis moves onto the secondary stage. This stage can bring skin rashes, legions and things like fever, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes. But again, not necessarily. The CDC notes that “sometimes rashes associated with secondary syphilis are so faint that they are not noticed.” This, too, will clear up on its own without treatment, but then the disease keeps progressing to the latent and possibly late stages.

The latent (hidden) stage of syphilis begins when primary and secondary symptoms disappear. Without treatment, the infected person will continue to have syphilis even though there are no signs or symptoms; infection remains in the body. This latent stage can last for years. The late stages of syphilis can develop in about 15% of people who have not been treated for syphilis, and can appear 10–20 years after infection was first acquired.

The late stage can lead to neurological problems and dementia (hence the famous syphilis-induced “madness”), along with damage to internal organs, blindness, numbness, paralysis and sometimes death. Mental illness caused by late-stage syphilis was once a common form of dementia.

* Regarding the claw hands: This information was relayed to me by a sociopathic ex-boyfriend prone to exaggeration. The CDC website says nothing about claw hands. The Wikipedia page might, but I got too grossed out by the graphic syphilis pictures. Googling yields nothing. It will forever remain a mystery.

Next: Diagnosis, treatment and why painter Paul Gauguin is probably the second-worst person who had syphilis.

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