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Bird Flu: How Big A Threat?

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Life insurance experts say that although avian flu is a cause for concern, it is not necessarily a cause for fear.

The assessment was made during interviews with National Underwriter, shortly before President Bush outlined a strategy for combating a potential outbreak of the avian flu virus on Nov. 1.

In a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President outlined 3 goals:

==detect and contain outbreaks before they spread worldwide;

==protect Americans by stockpiling vaccines and accelerating new vaccine technologies; and

==ensure that government at all levels is prepared for potential domestic outbreaks.

To implement this plan, the President requested $7.1 billion in appropriations from Congress as emergency requirements.

Eric Rasmussen, vice president of risk management with ING Re, Minneapolis, says the assessment of a possible pandemic is a little more optimistic than earlier in the year because steps are being taken to address the potential for one. There is “a heightened awareness,” he notes.

For instance, he says, there is more interest in developing a cell-based vaccine that can be produced more quickly and efficiently than the traditional egg-based method of producing vaccines.

To date, he says, there has been bird-to-human transmission but not human-to-human transmission.

It is not a matter of “if” but “when” a pandemic breaks out, Rasmussen says. Pandemics surface periodically, he says, but whether it is H5N1 or another virus is uncertain.

Additionally, the severity of an outbreak will depend on when it happens and how much time there is to prepare, Rasmussen says.

While he says he believes it will not be a sustained event, but rather, more like a single occurrence, Rasmussen does believe that the 22-50 age range will be impacted. It will not be just the very young and very old who are affected, he says.

That is important to the insurance industry because it is this mid-age range that is most heavily insured.

The impact, he continues, will depend on whether the first outbreaks are in rural areas where containment efforts can be made or in heavily populated areas.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome started in a rural region and spread to Toronto, he notes.

The bird flu, H5N1, is “probably a cause for real concern,” according to Dr. Robert Gleason, an executive with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Milwaukee.

But he also notes that in order for a pandemic to occur, there have to be several factors present:

==the virus must be able to jump to humans;

==it has to be highly lethal; and,

==it has to be easily transmutable.

The first 2 criteria have been met with deaths already confirmed to have been caused by H5N1, he says.

But, human-to-human contact has not yet been made, he adds.

Scientifically, Gleason notes, there is a pandemic every 25-30 years and the world is about due for one. But it need not be of disastrous proportions and disastrous numbers, according to Gleason. The last pandemic killed between 75,000-100,000 people compared with a normal flu death rate of 35,000, he says.

With the virus spreading to birds migrating from Siberia to Turkey, Gleason says there is a risk that 1 of 2 things may happen: Normal flu and bird flu may show up in the same person and mutate into a new strain or the bird flu strain may mutate on its own.

If it stays a virus that moves from chickens to people, then it is entirely possible that it will be a non-event, he says.

But disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have underscored the value of preparedness, Gleason says. So, referring to a recent analogy, he says that “bird flu is a hurricane at a distance. It may or may not reach the shore.”

“We are not saying that there will be a repeat of 1918,” according to Gleason. But, even if there is a repeat, the overwhelming majority of the population will be left standing, he adds.

But companies have to have a plan in the event of a pandemic, Gleason advises. Just as a property-casualty company plans for the possibility of a hurricane, life insurers need to have actuaries and senior management make sure there is financial readiness for a pandemic, he says.

Additionally, companies in general need a business plan so they can contact employees, determine essential work, manage investments and continue to pay claims, Gleason says.

The greatest risk is over the next 2 years, he adds. As a vaccine becomes available, that risk will diminish but until then, the world population will be going a “bit naked,” he notes.

If a pandemic breaks, Gleason says, it will start in clusters of human cases, which will be followed by it jumping among humans.


To date, there has been bird-to-human transmission of the flu, but not human-to-human transmission.


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