A Complicated Pox

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Scientists have long thought that Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors brought syphilis back from the New World to Europe in the late 1400s, Insider reported.

The continent experienced a huge outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease that killed up to five million people during this period – which also aligned with the return of sailors who accompanied Columbus from South America.

However, new analysis of ancient bacterial DNA has provided new clues about the origins of syphilis and the complex history of its spread.

In their paper, lead researcher Verena Schünemann and her team studied 2,000-year-old bones found in Brazil that carried lesions typically associated with the STD.

But their genetic probe showed that some of the lesions were not caused by the same microbe that causes syphilis, but by a closely related cousin.

The researchers explained that this microbe – part of the Treponema family – causes a different disease called Bejel, which is not spread through sexual contact and is still around today, mostly in Asia and Japan.

The findings also showed that the Treponema family is potentially much older than previously thought, which means that syphilis, Bejel, and other related diseases were present in Europe, India, and the Americas before Columbus’s expeditions.

“Of course, we cannot prove it wrong,” said Schünemann. “But it seems that there’s a much more complex story developing than these hypotheses are capturing currently.”

Meanwhile, the authors added that studying the bacteria’s genetic history could assist modern healthcare and in developing new treatment strategies.

Syphilis and related diseases remain prevalent and are becoming more resistant to antibiotics.

By studying how these microbes exchanged genetic information with humans over millennia, scientists hope to anticipate and combat antibiotic resistance effectively, said Schünemann.

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