The Cincinnati Health Department is launching a campaign to raise awareness about syphilis and its prevention among health care providers and the public, after documenting several consecutive annual increases in cases. Reports of the STD have more than tripled from 2007 to 2009 -- growing from 56 cases in 2007, to 70 cases in 2008, to 171 cases in 2009 -- according to city data. In addition, an unknown number of people have the disease but have not been diagnosed, CHD officials said.

While CHD provides STD screening for eight Ohio counties, about 90 percent of all syphilis diagnoses were in Cincinnati residents, said medical director Larry Holditch.

The CHD will offer syphilis treatment and prevention training to physicians, nurses, and other health workers through its STD Regional Training Center. Barbara Boylan, program manager of the federally funded center, will lead the efforts. Her office serves six states.

"The private providers are the biggies to get to," said Boylan. "We really need to get it back on the radar screen."

With the state's help, CHD is working to make syphilis testing quicker, said city Health Commissioner Noble Maseru. Adding a second screening for syphilis when pregnant women are closer to delivery could identify more infections, he said.

"I see it as a real harbinger of other problems," said Judith Feinberg, an infectious-disease expert with the University of Cincinnati. "I'm seeing new syphilis infections in my HIV patients with zero viral loads. Somehow, they feel disinhibited enough that they can have unprotected sex. And the real worry behind that is unprotected sex brings up the specter of hepatitis C."