Trading syphilis for malaria: How doctors treated one deadly disease by infecting patients with another

Trading syphilis for malaria: How doctors treated one deadly disease by infecting patients with another

In the 1920s, doctors induced a high fever in patients - so called "fever therapy" - as a way to help them recover from syphilis, though it involved ethical problems.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

If you had lived one hundred years ago, syphilis – a bacterial infection spread by sexual contact – would likely have been one of your worst nightmares. Even though syphilis still exists, it can now be detected early and cured quickly with a course of antibiotics. Back then, however, before antibiotics and without an easy way to detect the disease, syphilis was very often a death sentence.

To understand how feared syphilis once was, it’s important to understand exactly what it does if it’s allowed to progress: the infections start off as small, painless sores or even a single sore near the vagina, penis, anus, or mouth. The sores disappear around three to six weeks after the initial infection – but untreated, syphilis moves into a secondary stage, often presenting as a mild rash in various areas of the body (such as the palms of a person’s hands) or through other minor symptoms. The disease progresses from there, often quietly and without noticeable symptoms, sometimes for decades before it reaches its final stages, where it can cause blindness, organ damage, and even dementia. Research indicates, in fact, that as much as 10 percent of psychiatric admissions in the early 20th century were due to dementia caused by syphilis, also known as neurosyphilis.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

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