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WHO seeks $25 million for six-month fight against Zika

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization will seek $25 million for a six-month programme to fight the Zika virus linked to birth defects, including studies on whether it is spread by sex or by blood transfusion, a senior WHO official told Reuters on Friday.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen inside Oxitec laboratory in Campinas, Brazil, February 2, 2016. Picture taken February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Two cases of Zika being transmitted through blood transfusions were reported in Brazil on Thursday, adding to concerns over the virus that has been linked to microcephaly, a condition that can cause severe birth defects.

Dr. Sylvie Briand, director of WHO’s department of pandemic and epidemic diseases, said pregnant women in affected countries must have access to counseling and technology to make informed choices, including whether to abort foetuses with microcephaly.

Briand, asked about several suspected cases of Zika spread by sex or by blood transfusion, said mosquitoes remained the “main route”.

“There might be other modes of transmission, but for which we need to gather evidence and to develop specific studies to ascertain that this is a real mode of transmission,” she said in a telephone interview.

“It (mosquitoes) seems the most likely way of transmission. Because when you look at the data on the people that have been infected by Zika, it’s all age groups...(including) infants and elderly.”

But research is lacking on Zika, despite it emerging in Uganda in the 1940s. Briand said it took West Africa’s Ebola epidemic to realise that deadly haemorrhagic fever virus can remain in semen for months and be transmitted.

“So we missed certainly some cases of (sexual) transmission because of that. But now with Ebola we have discovered that it is in the semen as well and can remain for quite a long time.”

The WHO, which declared Zika an international emergency on Monday, is working with the 31 affected countries and territories to standardise methods of collecting data to gather comparable evidence, Briand said.

“We will use places where we are going to follow-up pregnancy and pregnant women and paediatric units to see for the microcephaly. And then of course all around pregnancy is also birth control and all those kind of facilities that are usually linked to pregnancy,” she said.

“Countries should just be aware that if they have had a Zika outbreak the number of pregnant women having a risk of microcephaly may increase although we have not yet established completely the casual relationship but this is a possibility.”

Earlier, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the top U.N. human rights official, called for countries with the Zika virus to make available sexual and reproductive health counselling to women and uphold their right to terminate pregnancies.

“It is very important for governments to put in place the right approach so that women are protected and they can be informed about the risk but also be followed up and have access to sonography, etc,” Briand said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay