WHO begs for S$5.5mil to prepare for millions of Zika cases

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Margaret Chan arrives to a press conference on Zika virus outbreak on March 22, 2016 at the health organization headquarters in Geneva.
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Margaret Chan arrives to a press conference on Zika virus outbreak on March 22, 2016 at the health organization headquarters in Geneva.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization is still waiting for its members to stump up another US$4 million (S$5.5 million) to tackle the growing threat from the Zika virus, WHO chief Margaret Chan said on Tuesday (March 22).

"The more we know, the worse things look," Chan told a news conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva. "In less than a year the status of Zika has changed from a mild medical curiosity to a disease with severe public health implications."

Zika has been linked to thousands of suspected cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect, in Brazil, and a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

A pattern had emerged with initial virus circulation followed about three weeks later by an unusual increase in Guillain-Barré cases, then foetal malformations as pregnancies of infected women come to term, Chan said.

Zika has not been proven to cause Guillain-Barré or microcephaly, a condition characterised by unusually small heads in babies and linked with developmental problems. However, there is growing evidence that suggests a link to both disorders.

The WHO and its American arm PAHO have asked for US$25 million to fight Zika and have received US$3 million, and are now in an"active discussion" over the next US$4 million, said Chan, who called the funding situation "pretty serious".

She said she would shift money across the WHO budget as far as possible, but 80 per cent of WHO's money was earmarked for specific causes.

WHO's strategy director Chris Dye said many, many millions of people had been exposed to the mosquito-borne virus, which has spread through most of the Americas in the past six months.

The latest medical studies suggested that perhaps 1 per cent of infections would lead to severe neurological disorders, he said. "If we just take that as an approximation, we know already that there are thousands of cases in just one part of Brazil, so the expectation across the Americas as a whole is many more thousands of cases."

Brazil has confirmed more than 860 cases of microcephaly, and considers most of them to be related to Zika infections in the mothers. It is investigating more than 4,200 additional suspected cases of microcephaly.