By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been known to mankind for centuries. Before the advent of modern medicine, people's lack of awareness and understanding of STDs contributed to the widespread transmission of the infections while few or no treatments were available to treat the conditions.
In medieval times, syphilis and gonorrhoea were two of the most prevalent STDs in Europe. One theory suggest that syphilis was spread by crew members who picked up the disease on the voyages led by Christopher Columbus. They are thought to have contracted syphilis while in the Americas and to have then spread it on their return when docking at ports in Europe. Sailors are also thought to be responsible for the spread of gonorrhoea from Tahiti to New Zealand during the Cook voyages.
Some STDs can have severe, life-changing consequences; syphilis, for example, can eventually cause progressive destruction of the brain and spinal cord, leading to mental dysfunction and hallucinations, speech problems and general paresis.
Treatment over the centuries
In the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury, arsenic and sulphur were commonly used to treat venereal disease, which often resulted in serious side effects and many people died of mercury poisoning. The first known effective treatment for syphilis called salvarsan or arsphenamine was introduced in 1910.
In the 20th Century, the advent of penicillin and other antibiotics led to an effective cure of bacterial STDs. This led to the public perceiving the illnesses as less of a threat and promiscuous conduct continued. In the late 20th century, the transmission of viral STDs such as HIV and herpes arose, infections that are not curable and in some cases may be fatal.
Hospital treatment of venereal diseases
Due to the stigma attached to STDs, people would often hesitate to seek help when the disease was in its initial stages, while continuing to transmit the infection to unsuspecting sexual partners. In 1746, at the London Lock Hospital, the first treatment for venereal disease was made available for those who sought help.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed in order to arrest and treat suspected prostitutes.
Tracing sexual partners with STDs
It was in the late 19th and early 20th century that the importance of tracing the sexual partners of a person infected with an STD was recognized. Soon, sexual health clinics were set up to identify and treat individuals with STDs and their partners, to prevent spread in the general population.
Another major problem that arose was an increase in adolescent sexual activity in the mid 20th Century. This led to widespread infection among younger age groups and also changed the way healthcare policy makers tried to raise awareness through campaigns.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Nov 17, 2013