The B.C. Centre for Disease Control and health officials issued a warning Thursday to gay and bisexual men about an alarming epidemic of syphilis infections.

The highly contagious disease is at the highest level seen in 30 years in the region, said Dr. Reka Gustafson, medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

No one from Coastal Health was immediately available for comment, but the organization said in news release that last year there were 371 reported cases in B.C., and 80 per cent of them were in the Coastal Health region, which stretches from Metro Vancouver up the coast as far as Bella Coola.

"We're encouraging men who have sex with men to become more aware about syphilis and to incorporate regular testing into their health care routine," Gustafson said in the statement.

Health officials said syphilis is often mistaken for other diseases, and left untreated it can cause blindness, hearing loss, bone pain and neurological problems. Severe cases can be fatal.

The disease can be transmitted through close contact during oral, vaginal or anal sex, and it increases the risk of HIV infection.

Symptoms include sores resembling bug bites, rashes on the palms and soles of the feet, fever, swollen lymph glands and weight loss.

Health authorities are urging sexually active gay and bisexual men to be tested every three to six months. They also warned that pregnant women can transmit the infection to unborn children.

Geoff Ford, a nurse educator with the health authority's STOP HIV outreach team, urged regular testing.

"Catching the disease early and treating it with antibiotics is far easier than the consequences of syphilis when it's too late," he said.