By Stephanie Nebehay
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that US$56 million will be needed until June to fund a strategy to combat the Zika virus which has spread to 39 countries and has been linked to birth defects in Brazil.
The funds sought, including US$25 million for the WHO, would be used to fast-track vaccines, carry out diagnostics and research into how the mosquito-borne virus spreads, as well as virus control, the WHO said.
Last year, the United Nations health agency was forced to admit its handling of an Ebola virus epidemic, which killed more than 11,300 in two years, most of them in West Africa, had been inadequate.
Public health expert Lawrence Gostin said on Wednesday (local time) the WHO's reaction to the Zika emergency was again "too little, too late".
The WHO declared the Zika outbreak a global public health emergency on February 1, noting its association with two neurological disorders, microcephaly in babies and Guillain-Barre syndrome that can cause paralysis.
Director-General Margaret Chan will travel to Brazil from February 22-24 to review Zika-related measures supported by WHO and will meet the health minister, a WHO spokeswoman said.
"Possible links with neurological complications and birth malformations have rapidly changed the risk profile for Zika from a mild threat to one of very serious proportions," Chan said in the WHO's strategy paper.
But Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, warned that the WHO had "grossly underestimated" the task as the virus was likely to spread to many other regions from the Americas.
States with major Zika outbreaks could incur up to a 10 per cent loss in GDP, as was "likely" in Brazil, he said in a statement.
Brazil said on Wednesday it is investigating the potential link between Zika infections and more than 4443 suspected cases of microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small head size that can result in developmental problems.
Researchers have confirmed 508 of these cases as microcephaly. The ministry said last week that 41 of the confirmed cases of microcephaly had shown links to Zika infection but did not update the figure.