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  1. Jonathan Carr
  1. Ward A-8-L, Tygerberg Hospital, Tygerberg 7505, South Africa, E-mail: jcarr{at}



Treponema pallidum is a member of the Spirochaetaceae, a family of bacteria that includes the genera of Borrelia and Leptospira. The organism has man as its primary host – acute infectious lesions ensure transmission of the organism, while persistence in the host continues for many years (Norris 1988). This comfortable relationship is coupled with great difficulty in growing the organism in vitro, forcing investigators to propagate T. pallidum in mammals, a significant hindrance to research.

The disease was probably introduced into Europe by Christopher Columbus’ crew on their return from Cuba and the present day Dominican Republic, and has been characterised by premature reports of its demise ever since the 16th century. ‘The pox as it is at present is much less cruel and easier to cure than at the time it first appeared; it is clearly becoming milder… to such an extent that it looks as if it will

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