Science has done some pretty weird things, especially when it comes to medicine. One of the weirdest things doctors have done, is treating syphilis…with malaria. Julius Wagner von Jauregg, who discovered and then developed this ground-breaking work was not only praised, but was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1927.
Jauregg’s work was so great because it saved lives when nothing else did. Syphilis, once called The Great Pox (also known as The Garlic Disease), was first noticed around the mid 1490’s. It could bring entire armies to their knees, and completely change the course of a war. It is a sexual transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. In 30% of cases, if syphilis is left untreated, it can infect the brain or spinal cord and become neurosyphilis. Neurosyphilis is bad, very bad. It can lead to dementia, paralysis, and psychosis, which can lead to admission into a mental health hospital or asylum. The good news is that neurosyphilis is not contagious and is treatable.
So, how can giving someone another disease help treat the one they already have?
Malaria gives you a fever, and a fever is the body trying to increase its temperature to the kill the invading bacteria/virus/parasite. The fever is meant to kill the parasite that causes malaria, but it can also kill the bacterium causing the neurosyphilis. Once it has been destroyed (normally after 10-12 fever convulsions), you can treat the malaria with quinine and rid the patient of both diseases.
The tricky thing about this therapy though, is the fine line between curing and killing the patient as malaria can be deadly. Malaria can be caused by different parasites, the deadly one is Plasmodium falciparum while the safe one is Plasmodium vivax. While only 18% of patients (from 213 cases) showed consistent improvement, it was a breakthrough in syphilis treatment at the time, and asylums were emptied due to the radical treatment.
By Lawrence Menz