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Influenza has the potential to kill tens of thousands of U.S. life insurance policyholders in the course of a few weeks, or to cause the usual spike in demand for tea, toast and chicken soup.

Many public health officials have been worrying for several years about a nasty flu strain known as “Avian Influenza A (H5N1)” or, more colloquially, the “bird flu.” The H5N1 strain has killed many birds in Asia and elsewhere, but it has had a hard time spreading from one person to another.

No one knows whether the bird flu will mutate enough to spread easily from person to person, or whether any variant that could spread easily would be especially lethal.

Meanwhile, other strains of flu that get little media attention could turn into killers, and some critics of the vaccination industry wonder whether vaccine makers are boosting vaccine sales by exaggerating the risk that flu poses.

This week, National Underwriter Life & Health is starting a Flu Watch feature to gauge the spread of the bird flu, the effects of flu and flu-like illnesses on the U.S. population, and the level of attention that influenza is getting in the media.

Bird Flu

Confirmed human bird flu cases in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam

Date of onset

Cases

Deaths

Dec. 26, 2003-March 10, 2004

35

24

July 19, 2004-Aug. 10, 2004

9

8

Dec.16, 2004-Oct. 24, 2005

77

30

Source: World Health Organization

Flu Among U.S. Adults Ages 25 To 64

Patients ages 25 to 64 with flu-like symptoms as a percentage of all patients at all health care providers that report flu figures to the CDC.

Figures for week 41 in:

2001-2002

0.33%

2002-2003

0.30%

2003-2004

0.25%

2004-2005

0.28%

2005-2006

0.28%

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Flu Media Coverage

Number of Web references to “influenza” for every 100 Web references to “health”: 8.4

Number of Google News entry references to “influenza” for every 100 Google News entry references to “health”:

Oct. 9-15: 15.3%

Oct. 16-22: 5.1

Source: Google News database