The Japanese word for syphilis, “baidoku,” literally translates as “plum poison.” It was so named from the chancres (painless ulcerations) that appear on the skin in the disease’s primary stage, which were thought to resemble plum blossoms.
Nikkan Gendai (Nov 27) notes that according to the Shinjuku-based National Institute of Infectious Diseases, reported cases of this ancient scourge of mankind appear to be making a comeback. While 831 cases were reported in 2008, the number declined to 621 in 2010. By the end of October this year, the count was up to 2,037—up from 1,670 for all of 2014.
Most disconcerting, perhaps, is that the largest demographic turned out to be females in the 20 to 24 years age group: the 177 reported cases represented a 2.7-fold increase over the year before.
“We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic,” says Dr Yasuhiko Onue, an authority on sexually transmitted diseases. “Among the carriers I believe are also women from Asian countries visiting Japan.”
Koichiro Fujita, professor emeritus at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, tells the newspaper, “It’s spreading because more people are engaging in sex without taking precautions. Young females lacking knowledge of the ways of the world are overly trusting, and are persuaded by males to have sex with them without use of a condom.”
The decline in fears over contracting AIDS appears to be a main factor, says Fujita.
“When HIV was a concern, warnings were ubiquitous, and young people became more conscientious about use of condoms,” he explains. “But more recently there’s been less concern over contracting HIV. And at the same time people regard syphilis as ‘a disease of olden times,’ and they’re not taking the necessary precautions.”
Another contributing factor, Dr Fujita believes, is the insufficiency of vitamin B, which may be responsible for weakening of the surface membrane of the genitals and lowered resistance to infection. Syphilis can also be spread via oral sex.
Unlike gonorrhea, syphilis in its early stages can be asymptomatic, and if a woman is infected during pregnancy, miscarriages or stillbirths are not uncommon. If the fetus does survive, should the syphilis bacteria infect its brain, mental impairment can result.
“It’s very difficult to tell if a woman’s been infected from a superficial glance,” says Dr Fujita. “Some of them tend to have rather sickly complexions. During sex, some of them may have telltale wartlike bumps, or inflammation, on their genitals.
“Some doctors overseas say they can detect infection from the characteristic odor. In any case, they should undergo a blood test as part of a full physical examination, and specifically request the doctor to look for signs of syphilis.
Tertiary cases of syphilis are a relative rarity but if allowed to go untreated a carrier can suffer a fatal aneurysm. Should you find yourself tested positive, Nikkan Gendai advises, you should also inform all of your recent sexual partners, whether they are amateurs or pros.