The New Attack On Venereal Disease (Jan, 1949)

Really interesting article from the 40’s about combating VD. Both in terms of medical treatment (the new wonder drug penicillin) and in terms of health education (removing the taboo from talking about VD). It’s also really interesting to see the how little has changed in regards to the balance between curing illness and “promoting sexuality”. This quote from the article:

Not all experts see this as an unmixed blessing. Dr. John Stokes, syphilologist of the University of Pennsylvania, is worried about the effect on morals. “If extramarital sexual relations,” he has said, “lead neither to significant illness nor unwanted parenthood, only a few intangibles of the spirit remain to guide children of the new era from an outmoded past into an unbridled future.”

Is very similar to this one regarding the recent HPV vaccine

“Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV. Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.” – Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council

The basic idea being that people should be punished for having sex outside of marriage.

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The New Attack On Venereal Disease

Tent shows, hill-billies and a new drug are some of the weapons which may relegate syphilis and gonorrhea to the text-books in a few years

A carnival tent show in a Michigan State Fair (top photograph and opposite page) and a little bottle of creamy white liquid (above) are the new shock troops in a two-front war against venereal disease. Between them, they may wipe out this scourge of mankind within the next ten or twenty years.

The tent show stands for the educational half of the battle. It is typical of new propaganda weapons being used for the first time in the centuries-old fight.

The white liquid stands for the medical half of the battle. It is a new penicillin preparation which cures gonorrhea in one injection and cures early syphilis in three injections. I

State health officers in the U.S., reading about the carnival show a few months ago, pounded their desks enthusiastically, and began to scribble i plans for campaigns of their own. They well knew the dismal history of the educational battle. For hundreds of years, deep silence had blanketed the whole subject of VD. “Nice” people didn’t mention it—except in furtive whispers. Even half a century ago the late great physician, Sir William Osier, told a social worker sternly, “I am going to tell you about a disease . . . but you must promise me that you will never use the word in public . . . because people will think you are not a nice person, and men will tell their wives not to have anything to do with you.” French censors in 1901 coldly refused permission to produce a new play, Damaged Goods. Author Eugene Brieux, whose work dealt with the ruin syphilis brought upon a typical middle-class family, read it aloud by himself to a packed and attentive house at the Theatre Antoine. Richard Bennett (the father of Joan and Constance) produced it in the U.S. in 1913, and was roundly denounced for his pains. Until about a dozen years ago, movies could not be made about VD because distributors had agreed not to show them.

Twelve years ago, Thomas Parran, surgeon-general of the U.S., wanted to make a radio address about VD. The broadcasting pundits threw up their hands in horror, and refused to let him use the word “syphilis” on the air. (The word was never used on a network until the American Broadcasting Company cracked the censorial ice last year in a special VD program.)

Little wonder then, say health officers, that most people today still think of VD as something shameful. Two out of every three who become infected this vear will conceal their disease, seek quack cures or none, and proceed through life infecting others, suffering innumerable ills and dying prematurely of any one of dozens of VD-caused ailments.

American doctors, reading about the new penicillin in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, likewise did some joyful desk-thumping and reached for their order blanks. Companies such as Schenlev and Bristol were already turning out the new penicillin in quantity, they learned, and the results were almost unbelievably encouraging.

The doctors knew that although syphilis had been killing and crippling men for five centuries (and gonorrhea for 25 or more), medical understanding had come slowly. As late as 1822, a South Carolina court officially ruled that syphilis and gonorrhea were one and the same thing. And for centuries the only treatment was with compounds of mercury—a medicine practically as harmful as the disease.

Finally, one day in 1907, German chemist-physician Paul Ehrlich succeeded, after 605 heartbreaking failures, in making an arsenic compound that would attack syphilis and gonorrhea germs. It is variously called 606, salvar-san and the “magic bullet.”

Unfortunately, it was not magical enough. Ehrlich found to his chagrin that salvarsan had to be injected every five to seven days, for eighteen months, to cure. So long and costly was this that only one out of four patients who started the treatment ever bothered to finish it. When the symptoms disappeared, they stopped coming to the doctor—and quietly rotted away from within. A dozen years ago—and as even today-more than ten million VD-infected Americans were avoiding treatment through fear, shame or ignorance. The cure was tough—and patients stayed away in droves.

First break in the gloomy situation came on the educational front, during the first World War. Americans read shocking headlines that told them VD was a leading cause of rejection of selectees. (Yet only nine states required that cases of syphilis be reported, as they did other contagious diseases.)

Letters and telegrams poured in to Capitol Hill. The public had learned something. Congress listened. In 1918, it set up a Division of Venereal Disease within the U.S. Public Health Service, gave it $1,000,000 per year to help the states in VD control and education. But then, with the “return to normalcy,” interest lagged. By 1921, Congress gave only $100,000 for VD; by the lean year of 1936, the figure was $58,000.

But that same year little energetic Thomas Parran became surgeon-general and boss of the USPHS-and the lid blew off. Parran’s article, “Why Don’t We Stamp Out Syphilis?” published in the Reader’s Digest, stunned Americans with the figures—one out of every ten Americans had VD! By 1938, his campaign won President Roosevelt’s support, and by wartime the U.S. was spending $5 million to fight VD. By 1948, the budget had swelled to a fat $31 million. Public education had done it.

Yet despite all this, the actual medical victory has not been great. Best advance has been the decrease of infant deaths from syphilis—they’re down 50 per cent since 1938. More adult cases are caught in an early stage, nowadays. But total cases, though down somewhat from the war’s peak, are still greater than in 1940. And still there are about 1,200,000 new cases of syphilis and gonorrhea each year added, of which only 400,000 come in for treatment. “These missing people have to be reached,” says Dr. William Snow of the American Social Hygiene Association, “before we’ll make any real headway.”

That’s why visitors to the Michigan State Fair this past fall heard a barker in front of a big tent bellowing, “Hey, step right up! Find out all about it. Who are the undiscovered? It may be you or you or you. . . . Hidden facts inside, best show on the midway—and for free.”

Thousands of visitors flocked in, saw a dramatic movie telling the effects of untreated VD, how to avoid disease, how to recognize it and where to go for treatment. They came away stuffing their pockets with pamphlets and looking sober—but not frightened. Governor Kim Sigler looked on and beamed approval. Health officers in neighboring” states wrote in to Michigan Health Department for details.

New Yorkers last month, jammed in their rush-hour subways, were startled to see the letters “VD” staring at them from subway car cards. And at home they heard on their radios playlets with deep-voiced Raymond Massey, and urgent appeals by commentator Drew Pearson. The VD pill even came in a hill-billy coating.

And this was only the beginning. The New York campaign—joint product of the USPHS and the city health department—was the start of a series of campaigns which will spread throughout the country. The barker at the Michigan fair could have given you the philosophy behind it. He used to tell the crowds, “When people say ‘syphilis’ the way they say ‘measles,’ we’ll be able to lick it.

So much for the educational side of the battle.

On the medical side, the big breakthrough came on a day in 1943 when tall, graying Dr. John Mahoney, research doctor with the USPHS, jabbed needles into the buttocks of four syphilitic Coast Guardsmen in a laboratory on New York’s Staten Island, and shoved home the plunger on doses of penicillin. Every few hours the dose was repeated, and every four hours Dr. Mahoney anxiously peered through his microscope at samples of the men’s blood. After sixteen hours, he looked, scanned closely and then smiled a weary smile. Not one spirochete was present. And after eight days of treatment the men were completely cured.

By the end of the war several thousand cases had proved that penicillin would wipe out gonorrhea in a matter of hours, early syphilis in less than two weeks— and without bad effects on the body. By 1948 arsenical treatment was largely supplanted, except for the few cases which don’t take to penicillin.

But the main problem with penicillin was that the body absorbs and excretes it almost within an hour alter injection. Yet, unless the blood content of penicillin remains high, the germs will not be killed. That’s why the standard treatment now is to give injections every two hours for eight days. That means hospitalization— a desirable thing in that it keeps the patients from infecting other people, but undesirable in that patients resist it.

Recently, Dr. Heller of the USPHS found that penicillin, if given in beeswax and oil instead of in water, was absorbed much more slowly by the body, and would be effectively supplied to the bloodstream for almost a day. Gonorrhea immediately became an out-patient disease—one huge shot could cure it, and the patient didn’t have to be hospitalized. Syphilis, too, could be treated by a shot per day for ten days.

But now comes the latest improvement. It is a compound of penicillin and procaine (an anesthetic), mixed with aluminum monostearate. The microscopic particles of procaine-penicillin become coated with the aluminum compound. Because of this, the body can absorb the drug only very slowly, thus keeping the supply to bloodstream constant over a long period. One huge dose is effective for as long as a week.

That means that syphilis can be cured by three simple injections—even two might do it for very early infections. A patient need not be hospitalized; he need not even miss a day’s or even an hour’s work. Three injections will cure him in less than two weeks. With such simple and inexpensive treatment, there need be no further obstacle to the dis-appearance of syphilis, even as smallpox has almost disappeared.

Not all experts see this as an unmixed blessing. Dr. John Stokes, syphilologist of the University of Pennsylvania, is worried about the effect on morals. “If extramarital sexual relations,” he has said, “lead neither to significant illness nor unwanted parenthood, only a few intangibles of the spirit remain to guide children of the new era from an outmoded past into an unbridled future.”

But to doctors the world over, heeding the urgent pleas of the World Health Organization of the UN, as well as their own governments, the answer is not to let VD act as the brake on sexual conduct. They know that Kinsey’s survey showed that only one out of four American men avoid intercourse because of fear of disease.

Teach children and adults how to prepare for life, say the doctors; teach them how to approach sex, how to seek mates, how to build a stable married life—and you’ll build a sound morality. As for VD, the doctors feel, there’s no reason to mark time any longer. With a tent show and a bottle of white liquid, they have the tools at last.

  1. Mariana says: February 8, 20063:11 pm

    Hi! You might be interested to see these science magazines covers:…

  2. Charlie says: February 8, 20063:28 pm

    Very nice 🙂 Thanks

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