The Jersey Health Department has launched a campaign to raise awareness among pregnant women and their doctors about the importance of getting tested and treated for syphilis.

According to Shereen Semple, director of the office of local public health within the State Department of Health, sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis are on the rise across the nation, and it’s important for people to understand they are preventable.

“After three years of no-confirmed cases in New Jersey, a dozen infants were born with congenital syphilis last year and the Department feels that even one case is one too many," Semple said.

She said the campaign includes syphilis prevention posters in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Bengali and Arabic. There's bus and corner store advertising, a push on social media, journal articles educating doctors and letters to healthcare providers.

“So far we’ve shared thousands of prevention posters with WIC offices, community health centers, hospitals, family success centers, community health workers, as well as colleges and universities, county welfare offices, public housing authorities and faith-based organizations,” she said.

In addition, Semple said, a letter has been sent to health care providers and associations, asking them “to increase awareness of the disease, and encourage doctors to talk to pregnant women about their sexual histories during all pre-natal visits.”

If risk factors are present, she said, doctors are urged to re-test pregnant women early in the third trimester and again at the time of delivery.

She noted penicillin is the only effective medication for syphilis in pregnant women, and if treatment begins a month before delivery, syphilis will likely be prevented.

So why is all of this so important?

In pregnant women “congenital syphilis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, low birth weight, blindness, meningitis or even death shortly after birth," Semple said.

And in adults, syphilis can lead to a wide range of medical problems that can get worse over time.

“Initially a person could have sores, then a fever, a skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, possibly a sore throat, and without treatment syphilis can spread to the brain and the nervous system,” she said.

Semple stressed “congenital syphilis is preventable, and together we can raise awareness to protect families.”

According to the New Jersey Health Department, the “Protect Your Baby From Syphilis” public awareness campaign is the third STD public awareness campaign the Department has launched this year.

An earlier effort urged 20-somethings to get tested, drawing attention the fact that one in two sexually active young people will get an STD by age 25.

Another campaign targeted seniors, telling older New Jerseyans they're never too old to get a sexually transmitted disease.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at

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