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What is Yaws?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2014
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Yaws, also known as frambesia, is a tropical skin infection which occurs in Africa, South America, East Asia, and the Caribbean. This condition is caused by infection with the spirochete Treponema pertenue, and it is easily treated with a single dose of antibiotics. The ease of treatment allowed the World Health Organization (WHO) to almost totally eradicate yaws in the 1970s, but unfortunately many nations lacked the resources to follow through and treat the last cases, and in the 1990s, the prevalence of yaws began to rise again.

This infection is highly contagious. People can get yaws through direct contact with infected individuals, or from insects which alight on infected individuals and then land on uninfected individuals. The condition starts with an ulcer, known as a mother yaw, at the point of contact. Four to six weeks later, ulcers appear on other regions of the body, and develop a raspberry-like appearance, along with a white crust.

If yaws is left untreated, the ulcers will penetrate all the way to the bone. Although the condition is not inherently fatal, it can cause disability and debilitation, and patients are at risk for secondary infections which may settle in around the ulcers. Yaws can also be quite painful, and it can lead to social isolation since the sores are aesthetically unappealing, and people fear the risk of infection. Penetration to the bone can cripple people for life, even if they receive treatment.

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Like other tropical diseases, yaws has proved difficult to eradicate because the nations where it is most commonly found lack the resources and manpower to fight yaws. Rural areas often suffer from lack of a quality medical clinic, and citizens may be afraid to seek treatment because they cannot afford it or they are afraid of receiving secondary infections from other patients at the clinic, a common problem in poorly-funded and badly maintained clinics. As a result, yaws spreads readily in rural communities, and as people travel, they carry the disease with them.

The WHO has proposed a second attempt to eradicate yaws, focusing on reaching every single infected individual, as was done during the smallpox eradication campaign. However, because yaws is not deadly, the organization will probably have trouble eliciting funding and public interest in a yaws eradication campaign, despite the benefits to residents of tropical regions. Inexpensive antibiotics for the treatment of yaws are available at most tropical clinics, for patients who make it in for treatment.

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