BHIVA/BASHH conference – Tuesday 20th April

Overshadowed by volcanic ash – above the surprisingly bright and cloudless sky of Manchester – the BHIVA/BASHH conference started well if disjointedly, with absent international speakers. Rosella Nappi joined us from Naples to talk about sexual desire disorders in women, like a voice in a Victorian séance, but others were altogether absent.
Tom Quinn was unable to present an opening lecture on “HIV, STIs and transmission: an unfortunate relationship.” James Bingham’s Harrison lecture on “Fear, prostitution, comfort and rape” was consequently rescheduled to this opening evening. James was introduced by BASHH’s president Keith Radcliffe as a father of venereology – indeed he seems gradually to be acquiring mythological status rather like the father of the Marshalsea in “Little Dorrit”, just down the road from St Thomas’s.
The topic was the eternal and complex intermingling of soldiers, sailors, venereology and the place of sex in war. Colonel Harrison, after whom the eponymous lecture is named, was the occasion for a panoramic view of STI control from the mid-Victorian era to the cold war, and more recently, the UN Global Initiative on AIDS and Security. As you will see if you watch the podcast – see the BHIVA/BASHH conference website – James has dug out a number of unforgettable phrases (such as the “400 mounted whores and 800 on foot” who allegedly accompanied the Duke of Alba’s invasion of the Netherlands). But what is extraordinary to us now is the sheer scale of the suffering and damage associated with syphilis, with enormous military Netley military hospital 5/6ths filled with syphilis patients, many in a psychiatric wing termed “The Inferno”. In 1897, the British army in India recorded 508 men hospitalized, to 1000 “on strength” – like all military authorities, they collected excellent statistics.
Accounts of the sexual commerce of the first night in dock for naval carriers (in 1805 HMS Revenge took on board 450 women for a crew of 600 men) reminded us of the roots of contemporary STI control science in an aircraft carrier study, which provided estimates of the transmissibility of gonorrhoea.
We were reminded of the ever-changing and unpredictable nature of medical euphemism in the term “BBC” or “Bitten by Camel” – this connoted venereal disease in World War Two along the North African front. Like many of us, I have BBC in my family history, and like the volcanic cloud it was not an insurable risk for my forebears, though a foreseeable occupational hazard. We hope our colleagues from around the globe will join us soon.

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