Life insurance industry experts are hoping heightened government awareness of influenza will reduce the risk that the dreaded H5N1 avian influenza or other flu strains will lead to significant mortality losses.[@@]

President George Bush is asking Congress for $7.1 billion in influenza-related appropriations to cover the cost of detecting flu outbreaks before they spread, stockpiling vaccines, developing new vaccine technology, and preparing government agencies to respond to major outbreaks.

Eric Rasmussen, vice president of risk management at ING Re, Minneapolis, who spoke before Bush made his flu program announcement, says he is now more optimistic than he was earlier in the year about efforts to address a potential pandemic.

Authorities seem to be more interested, for example, in developing and approving new techniques for growing vaccine materials in cell cultures, Rasmussen says.

The egg-based techniques now used take many months to grow vaccines, and people who are allergic to eggs cannot use the vaccines at all.

But Rasmussen and other experts interviewed say the size of the near-term threat posed by the H5N1 avian flu, or bird flu, and other strains of flu will depend heavily on the viruses themselves.

Right now, authorities are worrying most about the bird flu. At press time, the World Health Organization had recorded only 122 confirmed human cases of bird flu, and only 62 of the infected human patients had died.

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

Before a flu strain can cause a pandemic, it must be able to jump to humans, it must be highly lethal to humans, and it must move easily from human to human.

The bird flu can infect humans, and it is clearly deadly, but, so far, the virus does not seem to move easily from one human to another, Gleason says.

Health officials are keenly interested in reports about clusters of bird flu cases, because reports of clusters of infections could be a sign that the bird flu is spreading from human to human, not just from chickens or other farm animals to humans, Gleason says.

Some critics of the pharmaceutical industry emphasize that, even if the bird flu does become more contagious, the more contagious strain may be far milder than the strain now causing infections.

Some of those critics say the current concern about the bird flu may be due largely to efforts to increase sales of vaccines and antiviral drugs.

Even if a pandemic does occur, a typical pandemic may kill just 75,000 to 100,000 in the United States, compared with a typical flu death rate of about 35,000, Gleason says.

On the other hand, the “Spanish influenza” pandemic that hit the United States in 1918 killed hundreds of thousands of people. Adjusted for growth in national gross domestic product, total U.S. 1918 flu death claims payments may have amounted to the equivalent of about $50 billion in modern death benefit payments. National Underwriter printed grim accounts in 1918 of life insurers processing claims as their own employees were dying.

Recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have underscored the value of preparedness, Gleason says.

“Bird flu is a hurricane at a distance,” Gleason says. “It may or may not reach the shore. We are not saying that there will be a repeat of 1918.”

Even if there is a repeat, most people will survive, Gleason says.

But, just as a property-casualty company plans for the possibility of a hurricane, a life insurance company must plan for the possibility that another major pandemic will strike, Gleason says.

A life company must have procedures in place for contacting employees, managing investments and paying claims, Gleason says.

Life insurers are used to the idea that flu usually kills the elderly and infants, not many working-age people.

But Rasmussen warns that a pandemic could affect many people ages 22 to 50 who carry substantial amounts of life insurance as well as younger and older people.

The bird flu itself probably will pose the greatest risk over the next 2 years, while health researchers are developing a bird flu vaccine, Gleason says.

Until a bird flu vaccine becomes available, the world population will be going a “bit naked,” Gleason says.