History and Geography

Pinta is believed to be most prevalent in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. It is an "old" disease in the Americas, clearly present before the arrival of the Europeans. Although a relatively mild disease, it has tended historically to evoke a variety of social responses. In some instances the pintados or "spotted ones" have been shunned, much like lepers in the Old World. Yet in other circumstances their distinctive appearance has brought them high status. For example, Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, selected such individuals to bear his litter, and they were apparently frequently formed into special and elite battalions in Mexican history.

It appears, however, that the earliest recognizable description of pinta as a separate disease was not recorded until 1757 in Mexico. Because of the possible similarities to leprosy in regard to the skin changes, it is not so surprising that a medical commission in 1811 reported on it as leprosy. In 1889 pinta was viewed as perhaps linked to syphilis and was thought to be transmitted by venereal contact. Indeed, this hypothesis seemed to "square" with accounts that reported the efficacy of mercury in the treatment of pinta, and the fact that infected individuals who worked in mercury mines felt better. The positive Wassermann reaction was demonstrated in 1925, but the true nature of this distinctive treponemal condition was not recognized until 1938.

Don R. Brothwell

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