It is believed to have led to the death of Christopher Columbus. Erstwhile guitarist of the rock band Kiss Mark St John suffers from it, as does Scottish footballer Ian Murray. The symptoms are described in medical texts from the 19th century, but it was the German doctor Hans Reiter who gave the disease its name – a name that the scientific world has subsequently rejected against the background of Reiter’s experiments in the Nazi concentration camps.

Swedish scientists have now shown that the remarkable and mysterious disease reactive arthritis, also known as Reiter’s disease, was known many thousands of years before it was identified by modern science.

Rheumatologist Jakub Kwiecinski of the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, has examined prehistoric Egyptian papyrus scrolls – and found descriptions of this incurable disease from 3,000-4,000 years ago.

“Many unique medical texts from the period 2,000 to 1,000 years before Christ have been preserved in Egypt. The texts give a unique insight into prehistoric medical practice, and we found descriptions of a rheumatic condition whose symptoms – diarrhoea followed by joint pain and bladder problems – correspond exactly with the symptoms of reactive arthritis,” says Jakub Kwiecinski.

“The anonymous Egyptian doctors who wrote the texts also made a connection between the rheumatic symptom and a preceding bacterial inflammation in the gut or urinary bladder, thousands of years before modern medical research did.”

The findings not only prove that this mysterious disease is older than previously assumed; they also contribute to increasing our knowledge of the causes and spread of the disease.

“The diseases that affect humans are constantly changing. Old diseases disappear or the symptoms change, and new diseases become established – AIDS and Ebola virus disease are two examples. Studying how diseases change throughout history can teach us more about how current diseases arise and spread. This may, in turn, help us to predict disease outbreaks and to identify ways in which we can combat them,” says Jakub Kwiecinski.

The article Reactive arthritis in ancient Egypt: a possible description in medical papyri has been published in the Journal of Rheumatology.

Reactive arthritis is a joint inflammation that arises a month or a few months after a bacterial infection, most commonly caused by gastro-intestinal bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. The STD chlamydia lies behind some cases of reactive arthritis, particularly in men. The disease can affect people of any age, but it is seldom seen among children. The disease has a clear correlation with hereditary factors.

The treatment is principally focussed onto relieving symptoms, using anti-inflammatory drugs.

Source: The Swedish Rheumatism Association

Jakub Kwiecinski, postdoc at the University of Chicago and researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg
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