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Columbus Carried Syphilis From New World to Europe, Study Suggests
Date:1/14/2008

Genetic testing sees link to similar disease found in South America

MONDAY, Jan. 14 (HealthDay News) -- A new analysis of the genetics of syphilis provides support for the theory that the disease hitched a ride with Christopher Columbus from the New World back to the Old World.

But in a new wrinkle, the research suggests the disease may not have been transmitted through sex until it adapted to the environment in Europe.

"It evolved this whole new transmission mode, and it didn't take very many genetic changes," said study lead author Kristin Harper, a graduate student at Emory University. "What this tells us is that new transmission modes may evolve pretty rapidly. This is important to us today, because we're worried about things like avian influenza going from human to human."

Syphilis is usually easily treated today, typically with antibiotics such as penicillin. But U.S. health officials have failed in their efforts to eliminate it; minorities and gay men have been among those most likely to be infected.

Then there's the long-running controversy over how syphilis found its way to Europe, where it spread havoc for centuries. One theory holds that the disease was already in Europe before the explorer Columbus returned, but people didn't diagnose it correctly, Harper said.

The most familiar theory suggests that syphilis came to the Europe via frisky sailors on the Columbus expedition, and historical records suggest the disease did appear on the continent in 1495, three years after Columbus set sail for what proved to be the New World.

Harper and her colleagues tried to track the evolution of syphilis by examining genes from it and other diseases related to the pathogen known as Treponema.

The researchers looked at 21 genetic regions in strains of the pathogen from 26 parts of the world. Treponema causes syphilis and a disease known as yaws, a "flesh-eating" infection of th
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