Health in America
Health in America
Health in America

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

AIDS News cover: People of color against AIDS network, Seattle.

Sexually transmitted diseases, most notably syphilis, which infected Columbus and his crew on their historic voyage in 1492, have played a significant role in American history. Treatments were ineffective, and in the case of syphilis, doctors in the late 19th century were still prescribing an ineffective silver-based treat­ment. In the early 20th century gonorrhea, which can cause sterility in women, was believed to play a role in declining birth rates of the resident U.S. popula­tion and was viewed as a threat to the dominance of native-born white Americans. Immigrants and African-Americans became closely but wrongly associated with sexually transmitted diseases in the public mind.

During World War II, the military developed public health campaigns to try to keep soldiers from sleeping with European and Asian women, and distributed condoms to soldiers along with instructions on how to use them. Demonizing women, military posters displayed the menace of STDs. It was not until 1944 that penicillin was used successfully to treat syphilis and gonorrhea. This important advance did not benefit hundreds of African-American men in a Tuskegee Institute study begun in 1932 of untreated syphilis, funded by the U.S. Public Health Service. Most of the men, who were not informed of the real purpose of the study, were left untreated until 1972 and they suffered the long-term horrible effects of syphilis.

Penn State University, condom crusader on campus.

In the 1980s, the epidemic of HIV/AIDS spread around the U.S. and the globe, with no vaccine or treatment. Gay men were the first group to be diagnosed with AIDS, but it also spread among IV drug users sharing needles and their sexual partners. This epidemic has taken a particular toll on the African-American community, which comprises almost half of all people living with HIV and it is the leading cause of death among black women 25-34. The spread of AIDS led to campaigns for safer sex stressing abstinence and condom use. Beginning in the 1990s, AIDS became treatable through anti-retroviral drugs, but no cure or vaccine has been developed and more than one million people are estimated to have HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

W.P. A. poster for the New York State Department of Health, “Prevent Syphilis in Marriage,” 1940.

Highway billboard issued by the New Jersey State Department of Health and the U.S. Public Health Service in the fight against venereal diseases, c. 1943.

Penicillin is a new wonder drug that can cure gonorrhea in four hours, advertised on mail box, c. 1944.