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Columbus brought syphilis to Europe

The geographical source of one of the world's most lethal sexually-transmitted diseases has been hotly debated for half a millennium, and now research points the finger at the explorer.

world Updated: Jan 16, 2008 02:26 IST

The 18th-century philosopher Voltaire may have been right after all in blaming Christopher Columbus for the syphilis pandemic that ravaged Europe from the late 15th century, a study suggested on Tuesday.

The geographical source of one of the world's most lethal sexually-transmitted diseases has been hotly debated for half a millennium, and now research from a team in the United States points the finger at the explorer.

Syphilis was first recorded in 1495, among French-led mercenaries entering the Italian port city of Naples.

From there, it marched across Europe. By the end of the century, syphilis had become variously known as "Spanyie pockis" in Scotland, as the Spanish malady in Flanders and Portugal, while Italians, Germans and the English referred to it as the Naples disease.

In 1493, Columbus returned from his historic first voyage to the New World.

Some historians of medicine believe that the mercenaries were among Columbus' crew and had picked up the disease from cavorting with indigenous women.

But the evidence for this is sketchy. Indeed, other experts suggest that syphilis originated in Europe and in fact was taken to the Americas by Columbus' men.

Now a new study based on phylogenetics — the science of evolutionary links between organisms — gives some scientific weight to the accusations of Voltaire and others who later pointed the finger at Columbus.

A team of researchers led by Kristin Harper of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia compared, in 26 places around the world, different strains of the family of bacteria called treponemes that cause syphilis and three related diseases.

They found that syphilis is the most recent member of the treponeme family to have evolved.

In genetic terms, syphilis is a close cousin of a tropical disease called yaws, endemic only in South America, which likewise affects the skin, bone and joints. Yaws, though, is milder than syphilis and is not transmitted through sex.

Harper's hypothesis is that members of Columbus' crew became infected with yaws. As the germ travelled, it swiftly adapted to the cooler, drier climates of Europe and later became the pathogen that causes syphilis, remaining largely stable ever since.

"When this genetic data is combined with extensive documentary evidence," the study says, "the Columbus hypothesis for syphilis' origin gains new strength."