USP researchers discover oldest case of syphilis in a child in South America – News

A group of five scientists from different areas of USP (University of São Paulo) discovered the oldest record of a case of syphilis congenital, a disease found in infected children still in the mother’s belly, in South America. Evidence was collected from a skeleton of a child about 4 years old, which was buried 9,400 years ago.

According to the USP newspaper, the bones were found in 2008 at the Lapa do Santo archaeological site, a cave located in the municipality of Matozinhos in central Minas Gerais. Identified as B20, the burial contained the remains of a child who lived in a human settlement.

The researchers’ conclusion came after evaluating bones and teeth using several different methodologies. Afterwards, there was a comparison with the results of other research on paleopathology, a branch of archeology aimed at understanding diseases from other times.

After that, the discovery was published in an English-language article titled A case of congenital syphilis in the Lower Holocene in South America 🇧🇷An Early Holocene case of congenital syphilis in South America).


In an interview with the USP newspaper, the collaborating researcher of the group and one of the main authors of the work, Rodrigo Elias de Oliveira, explained the research. “Together with other people who work in the group, we studied the teeth of several bones excavated in Lapa do Santo in a systematic way. During this search, B20 drew attention due to the excess of cavities and other details. I wrote down that information and went back to study it later,” he said.

Soon after, the group tried to prove that the evidence would be a consequence of congenital syphilis. “There were characteristic lesions on the bones of the skull, ulna and femur. […] and the teeth had a lack of enamel, in addition to being almost all in a bad state, with alterations in the structure. The set of data pointed to congenital syphilis as the probable cause of the lesions”, he detailed.


Congenital syphilis

Scientists admit that the discovery is rare, since there are few similar cases described in the scientific literature due to the singularity, which depend on specific circumstances.

Child skeletons are more fragile than adult skeletons, which means they are less well preserved in archaeological sites.

Contamination by syphilis from mother to child occurs in 33% of pregnancies and most of these children may be asymptomatic during childhood.

Syphilis is caused by a bacterium and was one of the first diseases to be treated with the discovery of penicillin in 1943. However, the diagnosis of syphilis still challenges doctors to this day due to the different manifestations.

After contamination by sexual contact, the bacteria can cause symptoms to appear immediately, such as small sores on Organs genitals, enlarged ganglia and water.

After a while, these symptoms can disappear and the disease becomes latent, reappearing after months – or even years – in a more intense way, with red spots, fever and headaches.

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