The Persistent Plague—The Sexual Revolution’s Dark Side
SOME say that Christopher Columbus is to blame. If so, his sailors may have brought back more from the New World than gold trinkets and tall tales. Lurking in their bodies may have been the seeds of a plague.
Not all researchers, however, espouse this theory. Some even claim that the plague is almost “as old as man himself.” Traces of it, they say, are found in Egyptian mummies. Ancient writings seem to describe its symptoms graphically. Besides, they ask, how could so few sailors have infected so many others?
The plague’s origin is thus the stuff of scholarly debate and may always be a mystery. One thing is clear, however: Toward the end of the 15th century (shortly after Columbus’ return), a plague appeared suddenly in Europe and spread like a prairie fire. Thousands—perhaps millions—died. And in the ensuing panic, victims of the plague were banished, quarantined, hanged and even drowned.
Not surprisingly, the anguished nations took turns pinning the blame on one another. Says writer Louis Lasagna: “The English and the Turks called it the French disease, the Persians blamed it on the Turks, the Flemish and Dutch referred to it as the Spanish pox, the French called it the Italian or Neapolitan disease, the Italians blamed it either on the Spanish or the French, the Portuguese termed it the Castilian disease . . . the Russians thought of it as a Polish ailment, and the Poles gave credit to the Germans.” Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, however, contrived a loftier theory. In his edict of 1495, he proclaimed it a punishment for blasphemy.
Barely 35 years later physician-poet Fracastoro wove a tale about a shepherd afflicted with this disease. The poem itself is perhaps long forgotten, but not the chilling name given his shepherd from which the disease itself is named—Syphilus.
Refusing to Go Away
One might think that plagues that ravage, kill and maim would be as extinct as dinosaurs in our age of CAT scans and laser surgery. Yet syphilis, along with an array of other devastating illnesses, has become as entrenched in 20th-century life as air pollution. Doctors used to call this modern-day plague venereal disease, after Venus, the ancient Roman goddess of love. But a new term that focuses on transmission of disease, rather than on acquisition, has come into vogue: STD, or “sexually transmitted disease.”a “STD” is thus a catchall for a rogues’ gallery of about 20 sinister-sounding afflictions—from headline-grabbing herpes to obscure shigellosis. (See box.) The World Health Organization says that STD’s are a “worldwide epidemic.”
People are therefore taking a second look at the much vaunted “sexual revolution.” Blinded at first by its glitter and glamour, many are for the first time glimpsing its dark side: alienation, pain and human misery.
“A Time of ‘Sexual Anarchy’”
“An era of vast change in sexual morality now is developing in America. Fear is being expressed that the nation may be heading into a time of ‘sexual anarchy.’” So cried U.S.News & World Report back in 1966. But what shocked readers then, now elicits little more than a yawn.
Why this change? A number of factors that came together during the 1960’s. The availability of the birth-control pill, for one thing, made it seem simple to have sex without consequences. So did the liberalized abortion laws that some countries instituted. Years of economic, social and even political strife led people to question long-held values. And at the forefront were the apostles of the “new morality”—doctors, politicians, philosophers, writers and even clergymen, who proclaimed that the “old” sexual restraints were oppressive and harmful.
The results? What has been called a “dramatic shift toward permissiveness.” People set out to experience sexual freedom firsthand. “I looked forward to a new age of sexual freedom,” recalls writer Celia Haddon. “I was convinced that soon the sexual relationships of men and women would be more honest, more fulfilling and more pleasurable.”
Many, however, find little fulfillment in casual sex. Unrealistically high expectations merely produce new anxieties and frustrations. Now come highly publicized reports that venereal diseases are spreading worldwide at epidemic rates. For the ‘sexually active’ the chance of becoming infected suddenly seems no longer remote but terrifyingly possible. No wonder, then, that even some die-hard advocates of ‘free love’ are running scared!
And those who aren’t perhaps should be.
The Deadly Diseases
Syphilis no longer kills millions as it did in Columbus’ day, but it is still dangerous. Medical science says that the spiral-shaped syphilis bacterium (Treponema pallidum) exudes from open sores or rashes on a victim’s genitals. Infection occurs during sexual relations. Once inside its new victim, T. pallidum heads for the bloodstream and lymphatic system and, if unchecked, eventually infects the entire body. But the syphilis bacteria are insidiously slow. Ten to 90 days go by before the victim notices the characteristic syphilitic sore at the place of the germ’s entry—usually the genitals. Untreated, the invader can do irreparable damage to the vital organs, even to the point of causing death.
Second-century physician Galen coined the name for the age-old partner of syphilis—gonorrhea. Its telltale symptom is a burning sensation during urination. But, says the U.S. Department of Health: “In women . . . symptoms may not be sufficient to provoke the patient’s suspicion or motivate her to seek care.” And in men the symptoms generally disappear in a couple of months. Nevertheless, doctors say gonorrhea can still work its way into the blood system and infect vital organs, and women are especially prone to gonorrhea complications. Said The Journal of the American Medical Association: “The most severe of these complications is pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) . . . Almost 1 million women are treated for PID in the United States each year.” With what result? “Involuntary infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain.”
Interestingly, though, perhaps the majority of the cases of PID are caused by a disease most people have never even heard of—chlamydia. Says the CDC (Centers for Disease Control): “Infections caused by Chlamydia trachomatis are the most prevalent sexually transmitted diseases in the United States today.” The Age similarly reported that the increase of chlamydial infections poses an “insidious danger” to Australians. The symptoms of chlamydia are enough of a look-alike to gonorrhea to fool even doctors.
“Unfortunately,” says Dr. Yehudi M. Felman, “many physicians still think of chlamydia as a minor-league disease.” (Medical World News) But to the estimated two-and-a-half to three million victims of chlamydial infections in the United States alone, the disease is hardly “minor-league.” Nor is it “minor-league” to babies, often stricken with pneumonia or even blindness, who are born to infected mothers.
Syphilis and gonorrhea have thus lost some of their prominence among STD’s. In Great Britain diseases other than syphilis and gonorrhea (including some of the more obscure ones like chancroid and granuloma inguinale) account for 84 percent of the STD cases requiring treatment. Why, though, does this plague remain on the scene in the first place?
“Passed From the Scene”
“As a result of antibiotic therapy,” pronounced Dr. John F. Mahoney in 1949, “gonorrhea has almost passed from the scene as an important clinical and public health entity.” These words typified the faith the medical profession—and the public at large—bestowed upon the new wonder drugs such as penicillin. Convinced that science had dealt STD a deathblow, many doctors simply lost interest in studying it. In Central and West Africa UN-sponsored programs to eradicate syphilis and other related diseases seemed so effective that officials even relaxed their surveillance activities.
The rapid changes of the 1960’s thus caught almost everyone off guard. Between ‘1965 and 1975 the number of reported cases of gonorrhea in the United States tripled.’ (CDC) The rise in the tourist trade, spawned by jet air travel, helped spread disease from country to country. A worldwide STD epidemic was therefore brewing, but as Theodor Rosebury wrote in Microbes and Morals, “The appalling discovery was made that young doctors and medical students knew practically nothing about [STD].”
Doctors have therefore had a tough time catching up with the epidemic growth of STD’s, even though they claim that effective cures exist for most of them.b People are simply contracting the diseases faster than doctors can cure them.
While a number of sexually transmitted diseases have plagued mankind for many years, two in particular have been highly publicized recently. These are herpes and AIDS. What these involve will be considered in the following article.
a STD’s can be contracted in ways other than through sexual contact and, hence, are not always evidence of promiscuity.
b The WHO (World Health Organization) reports that penicillin-resistant strains of gonorrhea have “spread to almost all areas of the world.” The “inappropriate use of antibiotics” has been blamed for this disturbing development. While effective alternate drugs do exist, the WHO observed that because of penicillin-resistant gonorrhea, “more and more treatment failures will occur leading to extended periods of infectivity of the patient and an increased risk of complicated disease, particularly in females.”
[Blurb on page 6]
“The appalling discovery was made that young doctors and medical students knew practically nothing about [STD]”
[Chart on page 4]
A Partial List of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Syphilis Chlamydia trachomatis
Hepatitis B urealyticum
Genital Herpes Genital Warts
Crabs (pubic lice) Granuloma inguinale
Source: Centers for Disease Control
[Pictures on page 5]
The rapid changes of the 1960’s led to the so-called sexual revolution and a liberalizing of moral codes