VANCOUVER – Syphilis rates continue to soar in Vancouver, prompting the latest warning for gay and bisexual men to get tested for the sexually transmitted disease.

Public health officials say men who have sex with men are at the highest risk for infection.

Vancouver Coastal Health says residents around the Richmond and Vancouver areas are especially vulnerable, with 86 per cent of the 561 new syphilis cases reported in B.C. last year being diagnosed within the health authority.

Medical health officer Dr. Reka Gustafson says syphilis rates in 2012 across the Lower Mainland were at their highest rate in 30 years, and the numbers climbed further in 2013.

She encourages men who have sex with men to become more aware of the highly contagious disease, practise safer sex and get regular testing.

Syphilis is spread primarily by oral, vaginal or anal sex, and early symptoms such as rashes or painless sores disappear, but if left untreated the disease can lead to blindness, hearing loss, deep bone pain and even death.