Alabama periodically reenters the news as a focal point for a new syphilis outbreak. Of course, the active cases are usually found in or around Birmingham, the state’s largest urban center and industrial hub. However, let us not forget a happier time, when an aggressive venereal disease control program worked wonders in rural Alabama, except for the areas around Tuskegee – for obvious reasons, and the initiative of the Alabama Department of Public Health helped preserve the quality and quantity of life for tens of thousands of people.
In August 1945, Bruce Henderson, the state Senator for Wilcox County, managed to get a bill passed which required testing and immediate treatment for everyone between the ages of 21 and 50. His sudden interest in controlling syphilis and gonorrhea stemmed not from a compassionate core but from his position as a plantation owner. Untreated venereal diseases absolutely wrecked anyone’s ability to do physical labor or otherwise participate in the state’s economy.
It took almost thirteen years of subsidized education, health, and prevention programs; but for a short time it appeared that major venereal disease might be wiped out throughout the state. Then funding stopped. Alabamians are a promiscuous people and soon reinfection rates outstripped previous control efforts. Which is how we’re at our current state of venereal epidemics every two or three years.
So remember sweetly the spring of 1958, when for a brief moment only 2.08 percent of the state’s entire population had gonorrhea.