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Catch As Catch Can

WHO GAVE PINTA TO THE SANTA MARIA? Torrid Diseases in a Temperate World.\o7 By Robert S. Desowitz\f7 .\o7 W.W. Norton: 256 pp., $25\f7

May 25, 1997|CLAIRE PANOSIAN | Claire Panosian is a doctor in the division of infectious diseases at the UCLA Medical Center

In 1492, Columbus discovered the New World. In 1493, the Old World discovered a new disease. And what a disease it was--starting with "painful pustules on the private parts spreading to body and face, rashes, ulcers, buboes, black pustules, carbuncles, agonizing and swollen joints, lassitude, fever, rotting flesh, blindness and death . . . the symptoms lingering for years in survivors." In graphic detail, Nicolo Leoniceno (1428-1524), a professor of physics at Ferrara, Italy, thus portrayed syphilis, the first international STD. Also known as the Great Pox, the French Disease and the Neapolitan Disease, syphilis literally exploded on Europe in the era of seaborne exploration, leaving madness, deformities, aneurysms and stillborns in its wake. All this, according to Robert Desowitz in "Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria?" started with Columbus' men and a stowaway cargo too small for the naked eye to see.

Desowitz is a professor emeritus of tropical medicine and microbiology at the University of Hawaii who specializes in parasite tales. His previous books include "New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers" and "The Malaria Capers." In "Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria?" he braves deeper waters, charting the migration of so-called "tropical diseases" to temperate climes. Although he darts and weaves around fragmentary facts (remember, our real-time knowledge of microbes is barely 100 years old, so supporting data are scarce), his musings have merit. We may be currently spellbound by "emerging" infections such as HIV, Ebola and Lyme disease but there are still lessons to be learned from adversaries with centuries of global conquest under their belts.

Let's return to syphilis. It's not certain that Columbus' shipmates brought it home as a deadly souvenir of their Caribbean exploits, but it's likely. Anthropologists favor this theory, focusing on the absence of syphilitic bone lesions in pre-15th century European skeletons. The name Pinta, in Desowitz's title, refers not just to one of Columbus' fleet but, an obscure nonvenereal relative of syphilis exclusive to the New World. Even today it occasionally causes sores to erupt on the extremities of tropical residents from Cuba to Mexico and from Central America to the Amazon basin. It requires only casual skin contact for transmission and one whopping shot of penicillin for cure. Desowitz submits that Treponena carateum, the agent of pinta, was a benign predecessor of Treponena pallidum and that it evolved into the corkscrew bacterium of syphilis destined to wreak havoc among the lewd and lusty of 15th century Europe.

To back his argument, Desowitz cites a study of an isolated Amazon tribe: the Kayapo people. In the mid-20th century, the Kayapo were discovered; in 1970, they hosted Yale University researchers eager to track syphilis' footprints. Although physicals by the New Haven doctors disclosed no stigmata of syphilis, when serum antibodies were tested, virtually all of the tribe's adult men registered positive. Sadly, the project ended there, its findings incomplete yet tantalizingly suggestive of a nonvirulent ancestor of the Great Pox conferring immune protection upon New World natives. Tropical syphilis' (or pinta's) wildfire spread through temperate Europe is, in fact, the mirror image of what happened when measles, smallpox and tuberculosis later came to Amerindians via colonial settlers.

Syphilis is only one of many tropical infections that have at some time or another afflicted tender temperate folk. In "Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria?" Desowitz chronicles a whole slew of them, with special emphasis on malaria, hookworm and yellow fever. The latest intelligence along these lines comes from ancient shells of intestinal worms and eggs preserved in mummies and coprolites (that's right, fossilized stool). There's even a name for this fecal sleuthing: archeoparasitology.

According to archeoparasitologists and other experts, the first people to arrive in the Americas thousands of years ago were emigrants of Russian-Siberian stock, who came across the Bering Strait. These ancestors traveled from a parasite-inhospitable cold zone so, not surprisingly, their stools lacked nematode eggs, which typically need warm, moist sod in which to germinate. However, South American coprolites, and at least one Andean mummy circa 7000 to 3000 BC, tell a different story because they have shown vestigial traces of Ancylostoma duodenale, hookworms native to tropical-temperate Asia. How did the hookworms make it to South America? Maybe, says Desowitz, in the gastrointestinal tracts of seafarers from the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. Distinctive Kyushu-style pottery of the same time period has turned up in excavations along the Pacific Coast of Ecuador.

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