New Study Shows Us Just How Bad Syphilis Was in Europe during the 18th Century

Europe in the 18th century was the home of numerous serious infections that really thrived in large urban areas. Syphilis was one of those infections and it ran rampant in places like London. In fact, a new study suggests that one in five inhabitants of the UK capital had syphilis by the age of 35.

The History of European STDs in the 18th Century

The University of Cambridge study is based on extensive archival data analysis. Professor Simon Szreter and Professor Kevin Siena published their findings in July in the Economic History Review journal, painting a rather interesting picture of what life in big cities was and how it compared to living in a smaller populated region.

The findings are quite shocking by today’s health standards.

For a start, researchers discovered that the sexual culture in London differed significantly from beliefs and practices in rural regions.  The city had unparalleled degrees of STDs among its residents. The one in five syphilis estimate actually runs conservative according to the researchers.

Gonorrhoea and chlamydia were even more widespread. The two professors who carried out the data analysis reached the conclusion any young adult living in London at that time would have contracted some kind of STD during their lifetime.

Various conditions contributed to the epidemic.

For a start, London was an incredibly busy urban area that experienced a high influx of young individuals from many parts of the country. In addition, large segments of the population were struggling financially.

Upon experiencing the first symptoms of an STI like a rash or discomfort during urination, most Londoners relied on self-medicating. They were also hopeful that they’d contracted clap or gonorrhoea instead of syphilis.

The pills and potions used for the DIY treatment of sexually transmitted infections, however, often made things worse. At that time, “qualified” medical professionals got involved. Mercury salivation was a commonly administered treatment. In its essence, however, the therapy was very debilitating and it got people out of commission for at least several weeks at a time.

A Picture of Urban Decadence

Researchers concluded that the one in five (20 per cent) risk of infection applied to people who continuously lived in London from the ages of 15 to 35. But why were STDs so rife among these young individuals and why did they occur at such unparalleled rates in London and not in the surrounding rural areas?

As per the research, STDs were particularly common among young, unmarried women living in the city.

Many of these women had to turn to sex in order to support themselves and their families. Two other segments of the population were also established as especially vulnerable – young and unmarried poor men who recently arrived in London and were marginalised, as well as more established and wealthier men who were capable of affording various pleasures as well as hospital treatments.

These findings are in line with the autobiographies and personal records that such wealthier men created and left for the generations.

The diaries of James Boswell are an excellent example. A lawyer in London during the late 18th century, Boswell wrote about 19 separate incidences of contracting a sexually transmitted infection over the course of 26 years. These were always the result of multiple encounters with sex workers.

In the absence of personal hygiene measures, effective protection and prophylaxis, sexually transmitted infections became incredibly easy to spread.

The new study tells us just how STDs could have played into mortality rates in large European cities during the 18th century. They’re also tremendously important for furthering STD research since infections like syphilis haven’t been eradicated yet. In some parts of the world, they’re even on the rise.

Syphilis Today

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one million pregnant women across the world have an active syphilis infection right now. The statistic is incredibly troublesome due to the fact that syphilis can contribute to a range of pregnancy complications like miscarriages, stillbirth and infant death shortly after the birth.

Statistics show that as many as 40 per cent of the babies born by women who have an active infection are stillborn. Over 300,000 baby deaths per year are attributed to a syphilis infection.

Each year, there are approximately six million new syphilis cases recorded among people in the 15 to 49 age bracket.

While WHO launched a syphilis prevention programme in 2016, it hasn’t been all that effective. An increase in the number of new syphilis cases has been registered in many parts of the world. In Western Europe, the US and China this increase has been attributed to risky behaviours among certain vulnerable groups like sex workers and men who have sex with men.

Testing for syphilis is readily available. It is a step you need to undertake on a regular basis if you have multiple sexual partners or you don’t use barrier protection like condoms.

Once a test has been done, an adequate treatment can be pinpointed in the case of an active infection.

The good news is that syphilis is fairly easy to cure. Caused by a bacterium, syphilis is treated effectively with antibiotics. The earlier the treatment starts, the better. In later stages, syphilis can lead to organ damage. This is why you shouldn’t wait if you’re experiencing any kinds of symptoms.

Shim Clinic is the place where you can receive extensive and accurate information in complete privacy. Your confidentiality is guaranteed while you are being consulted or tested. Contact us today to have your questions answered or visit Shim Clinic during our work hours every day of the week.