The ripple effects of the Zika virus are hitting the poor hard in Latin America and the Caribbean, and could knock back development unless states involve communities in a stronger push to tackle the disease, a U.N.-led study said Thursday.
The mosquito-borne Zika virus will cost the region between $7 billion and $18 billion from 2015 to 2017, said the report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Large economies like Brazil will shoulder the biggest share of the cost, but poorer countries such as Belize and Haiti will suffer the severest impacts, it added.
Jessica Faieta, UNDP director for the region, said the virus — linked to birth defects in some cases where it infects pregnant women — is not only causing direct economic losses and putting health systems under stress.
"The long-term consequences of the Zika virus can undermine decades of social development, hard-earned health gains and slow progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals," she said in a statement.
Focusing on Brazil, Colombia and Suriname, the report calculated that the economic impact of the virus was five times higher for the Caribbean than South America, and could cost the Caribbean as much as $9 billion in lost revenues over the three-year period as tourists stay away.
Labelling Zika a "disease of poverty," the study said support was not reaching the region's most vulnerable who often lack access to health and social services.
Countries are struggling to coordinate and finance programs to control, monitor and diagnose the virus, it added.
Walter Cotte, IFRC's director for the Americas, said funds should be used to involve communities in responding to the disease, so as to build their resilience and reduce stigma.
Carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also hosts dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever, Zika has spread to more than 60 countries and territories since the outbreak was identified in 2015 in Brazil.
Here the alarm was raised over Zika's ability to cause microcephaly — a birth defect marked by small head size and underdeveloped brains — and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.
Spending more money on tackling Zika now would have long-term benefits and curb the spread of other diseases carried by the same mosquito, said the report.
With women on the fringes of fast-growing cities among those most at risk, it called for states to step up help for poor communities where many lack access to sanitation, health care and jobs.
"While a swift and timely emergency response is a necessary step in controlling the Zika epidemic, there is a growing need to address the quieter effects of the outbreak — the social impacts, economic loss and hardship — which are exacerbated by pre-existing inequities," the report said.
Families looking after children born with related birth defects will need greater assistance, partly to help with long-term care, which could cost up to $5 billion in lost income as parents stay out of the work force, said the report.
It estimated the cost of microcephaly to be $8 billion, largely because people born with the disorder are unlikely to be able to work, while costs linked to Guillain-Barre could reach $3 billion.
The World Health Organization projected some 3 to 4 million people would be infected with Zika in Latin America by early 2017, saying in February the region was recording lower numbers of infections than last year, but countries must stay vigilant.