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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 George 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:
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==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 that 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.