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The Conquest Of Venereal Disease Post by :Melvin_Ng Category :Essays Author :Havelock Ellis Date :April 2011 Read :2178

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The Conquest Of Venereal Disease

The final Report of the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases has brought to an end an important and laborious investigation at what many may regard as an unfavourable moment. Perhaps, however, the moment is not so unfavourable as it seems. There is no period when venereal diseases flourish so exuberantly as in war time, and we shall have a sad harvest to gather here when the War is over.(1) Moreover, the War is teaching us to face the real facts of life more frankly and more courageously than ever before, and there is no field, scarcely even a battlefield, where a training in frankness and courage is so necessary as in this of Venereal Disease. It is difficult even to say that there is any larger field, for it has been found possible to doubt whether the great War of to-day, when all is summed up, will have produced more death, disease, and misery than is produced in the ordinary course of events, during a single generation, by venereal disease.

There are, as every man and woman ought to know, two main and quite distinct diseases (any other being unimportant) poetically termed "Venereal" because chiefly, though not by any means only, propagated in the intercourse over which the Roman goddess Venus once presided. These two diseases are syphilis and gonorrhoea. Both these diseases are very serious, often terrible, in their effects on the individual attacked, and both liable to be poisonous to the race. There has long been a popular notion that, while syphilis is indeed an awful disease, gonorrhoea may be accepted with a light heart. That, we now know, is a grave mistake. Gonorrhoea may seem trivial at the outset, but its results, especially for a woman and her children (when it allows her to have any), are anything but trivial; while its greater frequency, and the indifference with which it is regarded, still further increase its dangers.

About the serious nature of syphilis there is no doubt. It is a comparatively modern disease, not clearly known in Europe before the discovery of America at the end of the fifteenth century, and by some authorities(2) to-day supposed to have been imported from America. But it soon ravaged the whole of our world, and has continued to do so ever since. During recent years it has perhaps shown a slight tendency to decrease, though nothing to what could be achieved by systematic methods; but its evils are still sufficiently alarming. Exactly how common it is cannot be ascertained with certainty. At least 10 per cent., probably more, of the population in our large cities have been infected by syphilis, some before birth. In 1912 for an average strength of 120,000 men in the English Navy, nearly 300,000 days were lost as a result of venereal disease, while among 100,000 soldiers in the Home Army for the same year, an average of nearly 600 men were constantly sick from the same cause. We may estimate from this small example how vast must be the total loss of working power due to venereal disease. Moreover, in Sir William Osler's words, "of the killing diseases syphilis comes third or fourth." Its prevalence varies in different regions and different social classes. The mortality rate from syphilis for males above fifteen is highest for unskilled labour, then for the group intermediate between unskilled and skilled labour, then for the upper and middle class, followed by the group intermediate between this class and skilled labour, while skilled labour, textile workers, and miners follow, and agricultural labourers come out most favourably of all. These differences do not represent any ascending grade in virtue or sexual abstinence, but are dependent upon differences in social condition; thus syphilis is comparatively rare among agricultural labourers because they associate only with women they know and are not exposed to the temptation of strange women, while it is high among the upper class because they are shut out from sexual intimacy with women of their own class and so resort to prostitutes. On the whole, however, it will be seen, the poison of syphilis is fairly diffused among all classes. This poison may work through many years or even the whole of life, and its early manifestations are the least important. It may begin before birth: thus, one recent investigation shows that in 150 syphilitic families there were only 390 seemingly healthy children to 401 infant deaths, stillbirths, and miscarriages (as against 172 in 180 healthy families), the great majority of these failures being infant deaths and thus representing a large amount of wasted energy and expense.(3) Syphilis is, again, the most serious single cause of the most severe forms of brain disease and insanity, this often coming on many years after the infection, and when the early symptoms were but slight. Blindness and deafness from the beginning of life are in a large proportion of cases due to syphilis. There is, indeed, no organ of the body which is not liable to break down, often with fatal results, through syphilis, so that it has been well said that a doctor who knows syphilis thoroughly is familiar with every branch of his profession.

Gonorrhoea is a still commoner disease than syphilis; how common it is very difficult to say. It is also an older disease, for the ancient Egyptians knew it, and the Biblical King Esarhaddon of Assyria, as the records of his court show, once caught it. It seems to some people no more serious than a common cold, yet it is able to inflict much prolonged misery on its victims, while on the race its influence in the long run is even more deadly than that of syphilis, for gonorrhoea is the chief cause of sterility in women, that is to say, in from 30 to 50 per cent. of such cases, while of cases of sterility in men (which form a quarter to a third of the whole) gonorrhoea is the cause in from 70 to 90 per cent. The inflammation of the eyes of the new-born leading to blindness is also in 70 per cent. cases due to gonorrhoea in the mother, and this occurs in over six per 1,000 births.

Three years ago a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the best methods of controlling venereal disease, as small-pox, typhus, and to a large extent typhoid, have already been controlled. The Commission was well composed, not merely of officials and doctors, but of experienced men and women in various fields, and the final Report is signed by all the members, any difference of opinion being confined to minor points (which it is unnecessary to touch on here) and to two members only. The recommendations are conceived in the most practical and broad-minded spirit. They are neither faddy nor goody-goody. Some indeed may wish that they had gone further. The Commission leave over for later consideration the question of notifying venereal disease as other infectious diseases are notified, and there is no recommendation for the provision of preventive methods against infection for use before intercourse, such as are officially favoured in Germany. But at both these points the Commissioners have been wise, for they are points to which sections of public opinion are still strongly hostile.(4) As they stand, the recommendations should carry conviction to all serious and reasonable persons. Already, indeed, the Government, without opposition, has expressed its willingness to undertake the financial burden which the Commission would impose on it.

The main Recommendations made by the Commission, if we put aside the suggestions for obtaining a more exact statistical knowledge, may be placed under the heads of Treatment and Prevention. As regards the first, it is insisted that measures should be taken to render the best modern treatment, which should be free to all, readily available for the whole community, in such a way that those affected will have no hesitation in taking advantage of the facilities thus offered. The means of treatment should be organised by County Councils and Boroughs, under the Local Government Board, which should have power to make independent arrangements when the local authorities fail in their duties. Institutional treatment should be provided at all general hospitals, special arrangements made for the treatment of out-patients in the evenings, and no objection offered to patients seeking treatment outside their own neighbourhoods. The expenditure should be assisted by grants from Imperial Funds to the extent of 75 per cent. It may be added that, however heavy such expenditure may be, an economy can scarcely fail to be effected. The financial cost of venereal disease to-day is so vast as to be beyond calculation. It enters into every field of life. It is enough merely to consider the significant little fact that the cost of educating a deaf child is ten times as great as that of educating an ordinary child.

Under the head of Prevention we may place such a suggestion as that the existence of infective venereal disease should constitute legal incapacity for marriage, even when unknown, and be a sufficient cause for annulling the marriage at the discretion of the court. But by far the chief importance under this head is assigned by the Commission to education and instruction. We see here the vindication of those who for years have been teaching that the first essential in dealing with venereal disease is popular enlightenment. There must be more careful instruction--"through all types and grades of education"--on the sexual relations in regard to conduct, while further instruction should be provided in evening continuation schools, as well as factories and works, with the aid of properly constituted voluntary associations.

These are sound and practical recommendations which, as the Government has realised, can be put in action at once. A few years ago any attempt to control venereal disease was considered by many to be almost impious. Such disease was held to be the just visitation of God upon sin and to interfere would be wicked. We know better now. A large proportion of those who are most severely struck by venereal disease are new-born children and trustful wives, while a simple kiss or the use of towels and cups in common has constantly served to spread venereal disease in a family. Even when we turn to the commonest method of infection, we have still to remember that we are dealing largely with inexperienced youths, with loving and trustful girls, who have yielded to the deepest and most volcanic impulse of their natures, and have not yet learnt that that impulse is a thing to be held sacred for their own sakes and the sake of the race. In so far as there is sin, it is sin which must be shared by those who have failed to train and enlighten the young. A Pharisaic attitude is not only highly mischievous in its results, but is here altogether out of place. Much harm has been done in the past by the action of Benefit Societies in withholding recognition and treatment from venereal disease.

It is evident that this thought was at the back of the minds of those who framed these wise recommendations. We cannot expect to do away all at once with the feeling that venereal disease is "shameful." It may not even be desirable. But we can at least make clear that, in so far as there is any shame, it must be a question between the individual and his own conscience. From the point of view of science, syphilis and gonorrhoea are just diseases, like cancer and consumption, the only diseases with which they can be compared in the magnitude and extent of their results, and therefore it is best to speak of them by their scientific names, instead of trying to invent vague and awkward circumlocutions. From the point of view of society, any attitude of shame is unfortunate, because it is absolutely essential that these diseases should be met in the open and grappled with methodically and thoroughly. Otherwise, as the Commission recognises, the sufferer is apt to become the prey of ignorant quacks whose inefficient treatment is largely responsible for the development of the latest and worst afflictions these diseases produce when not effectually nipped in the bud. That they can be thus cut short--far more easily than consumption, to say nothing of cancer--is the fact which makes it possible to hope for a conquest over venereal disease. It is a conquest that would make the whole world more beautiful and deliver love from its ugliest shadow. But the victory cannot be won by science alone, not even in alliance with officialdom. It can only be won through the enlightened co-operation of the whole nation.



(1) The increase of venereal disease during the Great War has been noted alike in Germany, France, and England. Thus, as regards France, Gaucher has stated at the Paris Academy of Medicine (_Journal de Medicine_, May 10th, 1916) that since mobilisation syphilis had increased by nearly one half, alike among soldiers and civilians; it had much increased in quite young people and in elderly men. In Germany, Neisser, a leading authority, states (_Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift_, 14th Jan., 1915) that the prevalence of venereal disease is much greater than in the war of 1870, and that "every day many thousands, not to say tens of thousands, of otherwise able-bodied men are withdrawn from the service on this account."

(2) The chief is Iwan Bloch who, in his elaborate work, _Der Ursprung der Syphilis_ (2 vols., 1901, 1911), has fully investigated the evidence.

(3) N. Bishop Harman, "The Influence of Syphilis on the Chances of Progeny," _British Medical Journal_, Feb. 5th, 1916.

(4) It is true that in my book, _Sex in Relation to Society_ (Ch. VIII.) I have stated my belief that notification, as in the case of other serious infectious diseases, is the first step in the conquest of venereal disease. I still think it ought to be so. But a yet more preliminary step is popular enlightenment as to the need for such notification. The recommendations seem to me to go as far as it is possible to go at the moment in English-speaking countries without producing friction and opposition. In so far as they are carried out the recommendations will ensure the necessary popular enlightenment.

(The end)
Havelock Ellis's essay: The Conquest Of Venereal Disease

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