Reinsurers might have a hard time protecting the U.S. life insurance industry against a “bird flu” pandemic comparable to the “Spanish influenza” pandemic that swept over the world in 1918.
A major bird flu pandemic could lead to about $133 billion in group and individual life claims in the United States, and even a moderate pandemic, comparable to the 1968 “Hong Kong flu” epidemic, could generate about $31 billion in U.S. group and individual life claims, according to Steven Weisbart, an economist at the Insurance Information Institute, New York.
Weisbart has included those predictions in a paper published by the III.
In a typical year, 36,000 U.S. residents, or 0.012% of the nation’s residents, die from the flu. In 2004, U.S. life insurers paid about $32 billion in individual life claims and $19 billion in group life claims for deaths from all causes, Weisbart writes.
In 1918, the Spanish influenza killed about 675,000, or about 0.7%, of the 103 million people then living in the United States. The deaths led to about $110 million in life insurance claims, or about 0.15% of the 1918 U.S. gross domestic product of $76 billion, according to the Economic History Services Web site.
During a normal flu outbreak, only about 10% of the patients who die are between the ages of 16 and 40, but, during the 1918 pandemic, about half of the victims were in that age range, Weisbart writes.
Weisbart cites studies indicating that the 1918 flu was particularly deadly to working-age pregnant women, with a flu death rate of about 23% to 71% for pregnant women hospitalized with the Spanish flu.
In 1957, the 1957 Asian flu pandemic led to about 60,000 excess deaths in a U.S. population of 172 million, and in 1968, the Hong Kong flu led to 30,000 excess flu deaths in a U.S. population of about 201 million with a GDP of $911 billion in 2002 dollars
Now actuaries are wondering about the H5N1 Avian Influenza A strain, which had caused 148 confirmed cases by Jan. 14 and killed 79 of the confirmed victims, according to the World Health Organization.
So far, many of the victims of the H5N1 flu have been children, and scientists say they do not believe the current strain passes easily from one human to another. Most of the people infected appear to have contracted the virus directly from chickens or other birds.
Some scientists have speculated that only a small percentage of patients with H5N1 may seek medical treatment for the flu, and that the strain may not be as deadly as the WHO figures suggest.
Medical technology has advanced considerably since 1918, and public health strategies also have improved, Weisbart writes.