For starters, syphilis, locally known as chindoko, is primarily transmitted sexually, but can also be transmitted through blood transfusion or sharing needles, especially among drug addicts. When we say sexually transmitted, this spans from heterosexual, homosexual and including oral sex.
There are many issues which separate this disease from other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). First and foremost is that its signs and symptoms present themselves in almost three stages, almost disappearing after the previous stage. One can, therefore, think that he or she has been cured of the diseases not knowing that the causative bacteria are still in the blood. This on its own is a problem in public health because it makes people not seek medical care, thinking that they are well.
However, the final stage of the disease is what also makes it special from the others. The bacteria can at later stages affect the central nervous system leading to paralysis or death. In pregnant women who have syphilis, this can lead to still births. Even Al Capone, the original Chicago-based American Gansta died from syphilis and not from a gun.
Syphilis can be prevented and controlled through many ways as long as you break the routes of transmission. This includes having protected sexual intercourse (whether heterosexual or homosexual), blood screening and others.
This now takes me to a story I watched on MBCtv some weeks back about syphilis. This story was about one international health organisations which also provides services in prisons. I just can’t remember the name of the organisation. In this news, it was said that the organisation had gone to Chichiri Prison to conduct what we call screening in public health. Simply put, screening is a process of trying to detect people who have or are more likely to have a certain disease by exposing them to some tests which have been proven to indicate that disease.
This organisation was screening for different diseases, including syphilis through examination of blood for the presence of syphilis. To the surprise of this organisation, the prevalence (presence of people found with) syphilis was very high. Now, remember that syphilis is primarily spread through sexual intercourse, whether heterosexual, oral or homosexual. This was indicative of high practice of homosexuality in our prisons.
The issue of homosexuality (mathanyula) has been discussed widely and there is much belief that this happens in prisons either because of the environment which denies prisoners of their conjugal rights, finding homosexuality as an alternative or that some of them are born gay and take advantage of the environment. It’s only prison officials who always refuse as if people say they are the ones who insinuate this. To me, the existence of the practice in prisons in not debatable. There are so many who have gave undisputable evidence, including court trials.
But, this story by this NGO brought itself a strong issue among public health practioners. There is high prevalence of the deadly syphilis in prisons due to homosexuality. This is another fact which should worry all of us. In public health it means prisons are a major source of syphilis. What now happens when these people are released? Spreading the disease before dying shortly after release. In addition, it is a big public health problem on its own inside prisons. Should prison guards really be denying existence of homosexuality in prisons after this revelation? Only the mad ones will continue denying.
It is time realistic preventive and control measures were implemented in prisons to help control the high prevalence of syphilis in our prisons. Many people even outside prisons are at risk.