- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2016

The World Bank Group announced Thursday it will extend $150 million in financing to Latin American and Caribbean nations affected by the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that’s been linked to a serious birth defect and is estimated to have only a “moderate” economic impact in the short term.

Initial projections by the bank say Zika will cost the region about $3.5 billion, or 0.06 percent of gross domestic product, in 2016. The damage could grow to more than 1 percent of GDP, however, in Caribbean nations that are heavily dependent on tourism.

“Our analysis underscores the importance of urgent action to halt the spread of the Zika virus and to protect the health and well-being of people in the affected countries,” bank President Jim Yong Kim said. “The World Bank Group stands ready to support the countries affected by this health crisis and to provide additional support if needed.”

The bank acknowledged that its projection assumed there would be a “swift, well-coordinated international response” to the virus, and that Zika’s most significant health risks — and behaviors to avoid infection — apply to pregnant women.

High rates of Zika transmission, particularly in Brazil, have been linked to a notable uptick in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.

The first round of World Bank funding will support efforts to control mosquito populations that carry Zika and efforts to identify and treat at-risk persons.

The Zika virus is not transmitting locally within the mainland U.S., although it has spread in Puerto Rico, where officials are taking steps to adhere to FDA guidance by importing blood supplies for transfusions from other parts of the U.S.

President Obama has asked Congress for a staggering $1.8 billion to fight Zika at home and abroad, including $250 million to bolster Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program, since its funding is capped and the island theoretically cannot respond as easily to emergencies.

Meanwhile, scientists say the link between Zika and microcephaly is growing by the day.

An article published this week in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, said scientists reported Zika virus in the amniotic fluid of a pair of Brazilian women whose fetuses had been diagnosed with microcephaly — results that suggest the virus can cross the placental barrier and infect the unborn.

Scientists who conducted the tests in the northeastern state of Paraiba ruled out related viruses and said the Zika strain matched one that affected French Polynesia in a 2013 outbreak.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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