Insurers and industry analysts are starting to think about how the earthquakes and tsunamis that struck northeastern Japan Friday might affect the life and health sectors.

The focus has been mainly on property-casualty insurers since an earthquake with a magnitude of about 9.0 hit the Tohoku region that day, many quakes with a magnitude over 6.0 followed, and mammoth tsunamis devastated coastal communities in the region.

Japanese officials have confirmed that at least 1,500 are dead, and officials in a port city, Minamisanriku, say 10,000 people may have died there alone.

Air Worldwide Corp., Boston, says insured property-casualty losses from the earthquakes alone may exceed $35 billion.

At press time, Tokyo Electric Power Company, Tokyo, is struggling to control at least three nuclear reactors, and Japanese residents are familiarizing themselves with radiation exposure terms such as millirem and nanogray.

Japan Credit Rating Agency Ltd. (JCR), Tokyo, has posted a commentary suggesting how difficult thinking about the losses will be.

“The fate of many people remains unknown,” the rating agency says. “JCR expresses its heartfelt sympathy to the injured and wishes earliest possible recovery.”

Moody’s Investors Service, New York, today issued a special comment on the effects of the Tohoku earthquake but did not estimate what insured life and health losses might be.

An analyst in the New York office of Credit Suisse offered initial thoughts on the situation in Japan.

“The human element of this news is deeply disturbing,” the analyst says. “The financial implications for U.S. life insurers with large Japanese operations are not likely to be material to annual earnings or capital.”

Face values and insurance penetration rates in the affected regions are probably relatively low, and the penetration of non-Japanese life insurers there is probably lower than in the rest of the country, the analyst says.

“Aside from mortality claims, we also note the potential for elevated hospitalization claims and given concerns over damaged nuclear plants, elevated cancer claims over the next few years,” the analyst says.

An analyst at Citi Investment Research & Analysis, New York, says he doubts whether the earthquake will have a material effect on the earnings of the U.S. life insurers he covers, then adds, “Of far more importance, any loss of life is terrible.”

AFLAC

Aflac Inc., Columbus, Ga. (NYSE:AFL), a company with large cancer insurance, supplemental medical insurance and life insurance operations in Japan, says all of its employees in Japan are safe.

“The company continues to reach out to their independent sales force to assess their needs,” the company says.

Two of the company’s 82 offices in Japan are in a building in Sendai, a city heavily damaged by the earthquakes and a tsunami. The building has only minimal damage, but the offices are closed for now due to power outages.

Aflac Japan gets less than 5% of its business from the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures that were most affected by the earthquakes and tsunamis, Aflac says.

But the company is working with its producers to help them take care of customers, according to Aflac Japan President Tohru Tonoike.

“We remain ready to respond to the needs of our policyholders by paying claims swiftly, and will prioritize our response to those in the affected areas,” Tonoike says in a statement. “We successfully executed our disaster preparedness plan and as a result, our operations stand ready to serve our policyholders and claimants.”

Aflac announced Friday that it had donated the equivalent of about $1.2 million to the International Red Cross. The company also has established funds to help employees and producers contribute to the relief effort.

Insurance securities analysts in the New York office of Sterne Agee Group Inc. say the Aflac may have about $4 billion in coverage in force in the hardest-hit regions.

“While death claims would be an immediate impact, we note that any impact from supplemental medical and/or cancer (should radiation become a health risk) would take years to develop,” the analysts say.

Aflac’s policies provide fixed benefits, and that should limit the effect of the earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear reactor problems on overall profitability, the analysts say.

Reinsurers

The Sterne Agee analysts put out a separate commentary on Reinsurance Group of America Inc., Chesterfield, Mo. (NYSE:RGA), which gets about 3% of its annual premiums from reinsurance treaties in Japan.

If the total number of deaths reached 125,000, RGA could have about $25 million in losses, the analysts estimate.

If the number of deaths exceeded 375,000, deaths above that level would be covered by a catastrophe reinsurance program, the analysts say.

“We see no reason for investors to expect material mortality-related losses from RGA” resulting from the earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, the analysts conclude.

Other earthquake coverage from National Underwriter Life & Health: