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If you're worried about Syphilis, then the disease known as "the great imitator" leaves plenty of room for paranoia.

The primary symptoms are fairly easy to recognize -- a painless ulcer appearing on your genitals three weeks after having sex with an infected person. This "chancre" resolves without treatment. Less obvious are the secondary symptoms that show up months later -- lesions appearing on your hands and trunk as the spirochete spreads through your body. These also resolve spontaneously. The third stage only appears much later in life -- neurosyphilis, destroying spinal cord and giving victims a staggering gait that pulverizes the knees, "gummas" that dissolve the bones of your nose, and aneurysms of the aorta big enough to eat a hole through your breastbone -- a terrible price to pay for the momentary drunken indiscretion of having sex with the wrong person fifteen years ago

On the other hand, you can take pride in joining the ranks of luminaries such as Columbus, Henry VIII, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Lincoln, Bonaparte, Van Gogh, Hitler and others who all suffered from Syphilis.

Today we have a better understanding of Treponema pallidum due to a gruesome Nazi-style experiment called the "Tuskegee study" in which American doctors in 1932 deliberately infected 600 unwitting black Alabama sharecroppers with Syphilis to study the results -- including infections in 40 wives and congenital deformities in 19 children. When 250 of the subjects were drafted for World War II, the positive test for Syphilis was hidden to avoid interfering with the experiment. In 1946 the same researchers infected 700 Guatemalan soldiers, mental patients and orphans with Syphilis to test the effectiveness of penicillin. It was not until 1972 that the Tuskegee victims finally were allowed to receive treatment. Five members of the Tuskegee experiment survived to receive a formal apology in by President Bill Clinton in the white house in 1997.

Like them, you can be cured with a simple shot of antibiotics, making Syphilis one of the easiest of illnesses to cure -- and raising the puzzling question of why we still keep seeing new cases of the disease Sylvia Plath once called "the most euphonic word in English."

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