A century ago, patients with general paresis due to cerebral syphilitic infections constituted a high proportion of mental hospital admissions, and accounted for an appreciable part of the chronic population of such institutions. With the identification in the early twentieth century of the causative agent, Treponema pallidum, and the development of effective methods of treating syphilis, this condition has become relatively rare. Historically, the study of syphilis of the central nervous system has been of great interest to psychiatrists due to the light it sheds on the nature of the relationship between cerebral and mental disease. It was one of the first mental disorders for which a specific organic aetiology was demonstrated, and the first to respond to a medical treatment.

Syphilis remains a major problem in certain areas of the world. Because during its early stages it is a genital ulcerative disease, syphilis facilitates the transmission of HIV and may be particularly important in contributing to HIV transmission in those regions where the rates of both infections are high. Syphilis is spread primarily via sexual contact with an infected individual. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it on to the fetus.

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