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Photograph: EPA/ESTEBAN BIBA

The economic impact of the fast-spreading Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean is likely to reach 3.5 billion dollars this year, but could climb if the mosquito-borne illness is not quickly contained, the World Bank said Thursday.

Across the region, the initial estimate of economic impact amounts to a "modest" 0.06 per cent of annual gross domestic product, but could be more than 1 per cent in some countries - especially in the Caribbean - that are highly dependent on tourism, the Washington-based development agency said.

"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," said World Bank President Jim Yong, himself a medical doctor and public health expert.

The World Bank said the initial economic estimate was "predicated on a swift, well-coordinated international response to the Zika virus."

Medical authorities including the World Health Organization suspect a still uncertain link between Zika virus infection in pregnant women and microcephaly, a disabling birth defect of the brain.

Symptoms in other patients are believed to be mostly minor, but if other major risks arise from the still poorly understood virus, the costs could soar, the World Bank said.

The agency said it was issuing 150 million dollars to help fight Zika in Latin America and the Caribbean, based on the immediate needs of individual countries.

The money includes teams of technical experts to be sent to affected areas. The World Bank is also supporting Zika virus response including public health campaigns, vector control, patient follow-up and care through pregnancy and postnatal care, promoting access to family planning.

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