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The Zika virus has been in the news lately as there is an outbreak in South America and some travellers have tested positive upon their return to Australia.

So what is it? Zika is a virus which is transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito, specifically the species Aedes aegypti, the same type of mosquito which transmits dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever. In the past there have been outbreaks in French Polynesia and Africa.

Probably only 1 in 5 people who catch it will develop any symptoms. The most common symptoms are fever, joint and muscle pain, sore eyes, skin rash and headache. These occur a few days after the bite, and are usually mild. A blood test will confirm the diagnosis, and for most people the treatment is simply rest and fluids and painkillers.

So why all the fuss? There are a few issues that make this virus rather scary. The first is that there are potential complications that can occur after the primary illness.

If a pregnant woman is infected, there seems to be a risk of her baby developing microcephaly, a condition where the head does not develop to normal size, which leads to severe disability in the baby. There is no treatment that can stop this complication.

There have been reported cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome after infection – a rare but serious form of ascending paralysis.

The other issue is around how it is transmitted. It seems that there is a possibility that the virus can be spread from human to human through sexual contact, although this has not yet been definitely proven. The WHO is worried enough to have issued an alert around safe sex in Zika affected areas.

To protect yourself from Zika you should try to avoid mosquito bites when travelling to affected areas, and you should have safe sex with anyone who has recently travelled to those places. However, remember that for most people the infection is mild and complications are rare.

Dr Fiona Bisshop specialises in LGBT health and writes courtesy of Holdsworth House Medical Centre.

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