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Sexual Health

The Crazy Histories Behind the 5 Most Common STIs

We dove deep into the history behind HIV, chlamydia, HPV, herpes, and syphilis and looked at how medical research paved the way for a healthier present.

Feb 14, 2024

5 min read

Written by Saloni Prajapati
Medically Reviewed by 

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Visual representation of the history of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, HPV, herpes, syphilis, and chlamydia

Every day, more than a million people worldwide contract STIs, but here's the catch—the majority don't display any symptoms. The most commonly spread STIs include HIV, chlamydia, HPV, herpes, and syphilis, and while they are better known today, their history has been attached to deep societal stigma. In this blog, we deep-dive into the historical influence these STIs have had and how medical research evolved to make them a lot less daunting today.

But first, let’s explore the difference between STIs and STDs. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) refer to infections, including asymptomatic ones, that can be transmitted through sexual activity. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that have progressed to cause symptoms or disease. An STD is a more advanced stage of an STI.

Let’s explore the 5 most common STIs and their historical relevance.

1. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)

HIV usually targets the immune system, and, if not addressed, might progress to potential Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The virus likely came from monkeys through zoonotic transmission. Discovered in the 1980s in the United States, it was declared a global pandemic in 1987. Some cases suggest its potential existence in the past. The ’70s and ’80s were marked with fear, especially in the queer community, where unprotected sex and lack of knowledge led to tragic losses.   

Acute HIV infection is the earliest stage of HIV infection, and it’s said to develop within 2 to 4 weeks after infection with HIV. Symptoms of HIV include fever and muscle pains, headache, sore throat, mouth sores, swollen lymph glands, diarrhoea, and more. These symptoms are common and can be misinterpreted; therefore, it’s imperative you consult your doctor when you experience them.

Due to the stigma attached to the disease as well as its rampant spread in an ‘ostracised’ minority community, it was difficult to talk about it—and therefore, knowledge around it was limited and largely based on rumours. New findings, however, suggest that the virus was detected in the 1970s, long before it came to be associated with the pandemic spreading like fire in the gay community. One of the most well-known personalities who publicly disclosed their HIV status was former basketball player Magic Johnson. In 1991, he announced he had contracted Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and has since become an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.

Scientific advances have transformed HIV from a once-debilitating disease to a manageable condition with antiretroviral therapy, marking it a significant chapter in the intersection of modern medicine and infectious diseases. It’s no longer the death sentence it once was, and today, you can live a relatively normal life while being HIV positive. Unlike certain viruses, the human body can't eliminate HIV entirely. However, with proper medical care and effective treatment, individuals with HIV can maintain control over the virus, leading long, healthy lives while safeguarding their partners, too.

2. Herpes

The word herpes comes from the Greek word ‘herpein’, meaning ‘to creep’, which traces its history back 2,000 years, with Roman emperor Tiberius banning kissing due to its prevalence. It spreads with skin-to-skin contact and can appear on the buttocks, anus, thighs, vulva or vagina in women and on the penis or scrotum in men. It can cause pain or itching around the genitals and might even lead to painful ulcers that cause bleeding. Sometimes, it can also have zero symptoms.

Interestingly, herpes wasn't always linked to genitals. Only in the 1960s was it distinguished into two types—HSV-1 (oral) and HSV-2 (genital).  It led to public panic in the 1980s, dubbed “the new sexual leprosy”. Thankfully, today's treatment options help manage symptoms, making herpes much less frightening.

3. Syphilis

Syphilis is a bacterial infection with a fascinating yet disturbing past and has haunted humanity for centuries. Its history revolves around it being a medical mystery, societal stigma, and finally, stories of triumph in treatment and prevention.

In the late 15th century, the disease exploded across Europe, likely due to increased troop movement during wars. Research suggests that for centuries, syphilis was often confused with other diseases like leprosy. It wasn't until 1905 that the causative bacterium was identified, opening doors for a cure. Testing and prevention measures further reduced its spread. However, syphilis still lingers today, particularly in resource-limited settings.

Beyond just medical history, syphilis is rampant in art, literature, and social discourse. From Shakespeare's characters grappling with its effects to Rembrandt painting the portrait of a fellow artist suffering its gruesome symptoms, syphilis has served as a stark reminder of humanity's vulnerability to disease and its constant presence.

Looking ahead, research continues to develop faster with more effective ways to diagnose and treat, aiming to curb the spread of this ancient foe.

4. HPV (Human Papillomavirus)

HPV has gained much attention in the 20th century. Identifying warts caused by different HPV strains laid the foundation for further research. In the 1980s, Dr Harald zur Hausen established a link between specific HPV strains and cervical cancer, which won him the Nobel Prize in 2008.

With over 200 identified types, HPV primarily spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact. Sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, is a common mode of transmission. Some HPV types cause genital warts, while others are associated with various cancers, such as cervical, anal, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers.

HPV infections often lack noticeable symptoms but can manifest as genital warts or progress to cancer. Genital warts are small growths in the genital or anal areas, and persistent infections may lead to cell changes associated with cancer development.

While health matters of famous individuals are typically private, some, like actor Michael Douglas, have openly discussed their HPV experiences, contributing to awareness and emphasising prevention.

5. Chlamydia

Chlamydia has been around for centuries, stealthily infecting people even before it had a fancy name. Traces of its symptoms appear in ancient Indian medical texts. 

Chlamydia often shows symptoms, especially in women. If you do experience things like burning during urination, vaginal or pelvic pain, or unusual discharge, it's best to consult your doctor. Safe sex practices, like using condoms consistently and correctly, are your best bet to avoid this unwanted guest. Regular testing, open communication with your partner(s), and knowing your STI status are vital to maintaining sexual health.

Skip the stigma and stay informed

Knowledge empowers individuals to make informed choices and seek timely medical attention. Understanding and managing the most common STIs isn't a scary science fiction plot but an empowering step toward sexual health and wellbeing. It’s time to ditch the stigma, put prevention first, and welcome healthier, happier sexual lives.

Medically reviewed by:

Dr Uday Thanawala, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist

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