BRASILIA -- The economic impact on Latin America of the Zika virus has been estimated to reach USD18 billion from 2015 to 2017, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) said here Tuesday.

"Zika is responsible for tangible losses to gross domestic product, estimated to range from USD7 billion to USD18 billion over 2015-2017 alone," according to a UNDP study.

The report, "A Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of the Zika Virus in Latin America and the Caribbean", focuses on three of the countries worst hit by the mosquito-borne virus, Brazil, Colombia and Suriname.

Those losses impose "an immediate burden on health care and social welfare systems" but "more long-term, could undermine decades of hard-earned health gains and social development progress", the study warns.

The UNDP report calls on countries to offset the adverse impact of the virus by investing more "in prevention, preparedness and response strategies at the local, national and regional levels".

Also, Zika is bound to have a greater impact on the region's more fragile economies, the agency said.

"While larger economies, such as Brazil, are expected to bear the greatest share of the absolute cost, the severest impacts will be felt in the poorest countries," the report said.

Haiti and Belize, for example, could lose 1.13 percent and 1.19 percent of GDP annually, respectively.

The mosquito-borne virus has been linked to birth defects, with the number of infants born with microcephaly or abnormally small heads, skyrocketing in Brazil following the Zika outbreak. (Xinhua)