VANCOUVER — Researchers at the University of Victoria have been granted a patent to develop a potential vaccine against syphilis as rates for the sexually transmitted disease soar worldwide.

Microbiologist Caroline Cameron said a vaccine would complement current treatment with penicillin.

The infectious disease often goes undetected and is increasing in epidemic proportions among some populations, including men who have sex with men, she said.

Researchers are trying to understand the function of a protein that works to prevent syphilis bacterium from entering the bloodstream and spreading throughout the body as they work on a vaccine, she said Tuesday.

Trials have shown an immune response to the protein, which is the component of the vaccine that has been patented, Cameron said, adding a vaccine may be over a decade away from development.

“The World Health Organization is promoting vaccine development for sexually transmitted infections and it has become a priority because of the increased number of cases around the world,” she said.

Scientists elsewhere around the globe are also working on possible vaccines for gonorrhea and chlamydia, said Cameron, who is president of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control said in 2016 that syphilis rates had reached a 30-year high, with almost 500 cases of the disease reported in 2015, nearly double the number from a decade earlier.

The centre urged regular testing and launched a campaign targeting gay and bisexual men because they were over 90 per cent of those infected.

Health officials in Alberta said last November that online hookup sites such as Tinder, Pure and Grindr have contributed to the hike in sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis.

The highest rate of infection was in 15- to 26-year-olds, but no sexually active group was immune without using protection.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said syphilis rates have been rising steadily since 2001, and it is the third most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection in the country, following chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Between 2010 and 2015, the syphilis rate increased by nearly 86 per cent in Canada, especially among young men, consistent with trends in the United States and Europe, it said.

The disease is passed through contact with a syphilis lesion and may increase HIV transmission.

Congenital syphilis may have severe consequences for newborns, including cerebral palsy, hearing loss and even death, with risk of transmission at more than 70 per cent, depending on the stage of the mother’s disease, the agency said.