RICHMOND, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- The Virginia Department of Health says it has seen a big increase in the number of syphilis cases over the last several years.

Syphilis is a sexually-transmitted disease that can affect men and women, though VDH says men tend to have far higher rates of the disease.

In Virginia, the number of reported syphilis cases increased by 655 percent between 2003 and 2019.

VDH says that if it is left untreated, it can damage the organs and may even cause death. Pregnant people with it may go into premature labor, have babies with birth defects or have a stillborn baby.

Syphilis can be spread by unprotected sexual activity with an infected person or from a mother to her child.

VDH says the current drug epidemic is also associated with an increased risk of getting syphilis.

The disease can be hard to diagnose because its symptoms may look like something else, but a blood test will find it. Many health departments offer free testing.

Syphilis can be cured, though health officials say treating it will not undo any organ damage that have may already occurred.

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