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Sex and Romance for Senior Citizens

Sexual Revolution Began in 50s Due to Penicillin – Earlier Than Most Seniors from 50s Realized

Most think boomers introduced permissive attitudes in 1960s, study says it was a decade earlier; second report says deadly syphilis, which Columbus carried to Europe from Americas, kept cap on sex until conquered by penicillin - see Columbus story below lead story

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Emory University

Elvis leading the teens of the 50s to rock away.

Jan. 28, 2013 - The rise in risky, non-traditional sexual relations that marked the swinging 1960s actually began as much as a decade earlier, during the conformist 1950s, suggests an analysis Emory University economist Andrew Francis.

“It’s a common assumption that the sexual revolution began with the permissive attitudes of the 1960s and the development of contraceptives like the birth control pill,” notes Francis, whose report is published by the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

“The evidence, however, strongly indicates that the widespread use of penicillin, leading to a rapid decline in syphilis during the 1950s, is what launched the modern sexual era.”

Skeletons point to Columbus voyage for syphilis origins -see story below

As penicillin drove down the cost of having risky sex, the population started having more of it, Francis says, comparing the phenomena to the economic law of demand: When the cost of a good falls, people buy more of the good.

“People don’t generally think of sexual behavior in economic terms,” he says, “but it’s important to do so because sexual behavior, just like other behaviors, responds to incentives.”

Syphilis reached its peak in the United States in 1939, when it killed 20,000 people. “It was the AIDS of the late 1930s and early 1940s,” Francis says. “Fear of catching syphilis and dying of it loomed large.”

 

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Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but it was not put into clinical use until 1941. As World War II escalated, and sexually transmitted diseases threatened the troops overseas, penicillin was found to be an effective treatment against syphilis.

 “The military wanted to rid the troops of STDs and all kinds of infections, so that they could keep fighting,” Francis says. “That really sped up the development of penicillin as an antibiotic.”

Right after the war, penicillin became a clinical staple for the general population as well. In the United States, syphilis went from a chronic, debilitating and potentially fatal disease to one that could be cured with a single dose of medicine.

From 1947 to 1957, the syphilis death rate fell by 75 percent and the syphilis incidence rate fell by 95 percent. “That’s a huge drop in syphilis. It’s essentially a collapse,” Francis says.

In order to test his theory that risky sex increased as the cost of syphilis dropped, Francis analyzed data from the 1930s through the 1970s from state and federal health agencies. Some of the data was only available on paper documents, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) digitized it at the request of Francis.

For his study, Francis chose three measures of sexual behavior: The illegitimate birth ratio; the teen birth share; and the incidence of gonorrhea, a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease that tends to spread quickly.

“As soon as syphilis bottoms out, in the mid- to late-1950s, you start to see dramatic increases in all three measures of risky sexual behavior,” Francis says.

While many factors likely continued to fuel the sexual revolution during the 1960s and 1970s, Francis says the 1950s and the role of penicillin have been largely overlooked. “The 1950s are associated with prudish, more traditional sexual behaviors,” he notes. “That may have been true for many adults, but not necessarily for young adults. It’s important to recognize how reducing the fear of syphilis affected sexual behaviors.”

A few physicians sounded moralistic warnings during the 1950s about the potential for penicillin to affect behavior. Spanish physician Eduardo Martinez Alonso referenced Romans 6:23, and the notion that God uses diseases to punish people, when he wrote: “The wages of sin are now negligible. One can almost sin with impunity, since the sting of sinning has been removed.”

Such moralistic approaches, equating disease with sin, are counterproductive, Francis says, stressing that interventions need to focus on how individuals may respond to the cost of disease.

He found that the historical data of the syphilis epidemic parallels the contemporary AIDS epidemic. “Some studies have indicated that the development of highly active antiretroviral therapy for treating HIV may have caused some men who have sex with men to be less concerned about contracting and transmitting HIV, and more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors,” Francis says.

“Policy makers need to take into consideration behavioral responses to changes in the cost of disease, and implement strategies that are holistic and longsighted,” he concludes. “To focus exclusively on the defeat of one disease can set the stage for the onset of another if preemptive measures are not taken.”


Skeletons Point to Columbus Voyage for Syphilis Origins

It appears that venereal syphilis was the by-product of two different populations meeting and exchanging a pathogen

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Emory University | December 16, 2011

Skeletons don’t lie. But sometimes they may mislead, as in the case of bones that reputedly showed evidence of syphilis in Europe and other parts of the Old World before Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage in 1492.

None of this skeletal evidence, including 54 published reports, holds up when subjected to standardized analyses for both diagnosis and dating, according to an appraisal in the current Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. In fact, the skeletal data bolsters the case that syphilis did not exist in Europe before Columbus set sail.

“This is the first time that all 54 of these cases have been evaluated systematically,” says George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory University and co-author of the appraisal. “The evidence keeps accumulating that a progenitor of syphilis came from the New World with Columbus’ crew and rapidly evolved into the venereal disease that remains with us today.”

The appraisal was led by two of Armelagos’ former graduate students at Emory: Molly Zuckerman, who is now an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, and Kristin Harper, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University. Additional authors include Emory anthropologist John Kingston and Megan Harper from the University of Missouri.

“Syphilis has been around for 500 years,” Zuckerman says. “People started debating where it came from shortly afterwards, and they haven’t stopped since. It was one of the first global diseases, and understanding where it came from and how it spread may help us combat diseases today.”

The history of syphilis, and society's reactions to the disease, have eerie parallels to the more modern story of HIV/AIDS.

"Syphilis was a by-product of two different populations meeting and exchanging a pathogen," says anthropologist Molly Zuckerman. "It was an adaptive event, the natural selection of a disease, independent of morality or blame." (Image: iStockphoto.com)

The treponemal family of bacteria causes syphilis and related diseases that share some symptoms but spread differently. Syphilis is sexually transmitted. Yaws and bejel, which occurred in early New World populations, are tropical diseases that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or oral contact.

The first recorded epidemic of venereal syphilis occurred in Europe in 1495. One hypothesis is that a subspecies of Treponema from the warm, moist climate of the tropical New World mutated into the venereal subspecies to survive in the cooler and relatively more hygienic European environment.

The fact that syphilis is a stigmatized, sexual disease has added to the controversy over its origins, Zuckerman says.

“In reality, it appears that venereal syphilis was the by-product of two different populations meeting and exchanging a pathogen,” she says. “It was an adaptive event, the natural selection of a disease, independent of morality or blame.”

Armelagos, a pioneer of the field of bioarcheology, was one of the doubters decades ago, when he first heard the Columbus theory for syphilis. “I laughed at the idea that a small group of sailors brought back this disease that caused this major European epidemic,” he recalls.

While teaching at the University of Massachusetts, he and graduate student Brenda Baker decided to investigate the matter and got a shock: All of the available evidence at the time actually supported the Columbus theory. “It was a paradigm shift,” Armelagos says. The pair published their results in 1988.

The results again supported the hypothesis that syphilis, or some progenitor, came from the New World. But reports of pre-Columbian skeletons showing the lesions of chronic syphilis have kept cropping up in the Old World. For this latest appraisal of the skeletal evidence, the researchers gathered all of the published reports.

They found that most of the skeletal material did not meet at least one of the standardized, diagnostic criteria for chronic syphilis, including pitting on the skull known as caries sicca and pitting and swelling of the long bones.

The few published cases that did meet the criteria tended to come from coastal regions where seafood was a big part of the diet. The so-called “marine reservoir effect,” caused by eating seafood which contains “old carbon” from upwelling, deep ocean waters, can throw off radiocarbon dating of a skeleton by hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Analyzing the collagen levels of the skeletal material enabled the researchers to estimate the seafood consumption and factor that result into the radiocarbon dating.

“Once we adjusted for the marine signature, all of the skeletons that showed definite signs of treponemal disease appeared to be dated to after Columbus returned to Europe,” Harper says.

“The origin of syphilis is a fascinating, compelling question,” Zuckerman says. “The current evidence is pretty definitive, but we shouldn’t close the book and say we’re done with the subject. The great thing about science is constantly being able to understand things in a new light.”

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