Insurers Warned about Bird Flu “Species Jump”

December 22, 2005

Even as new reports of deaths caused by the bird flu virus are coming in from Indonesia and Vietnam, the insurance industry received an additional warning about its potential exposures.

An article on the Lloyd’s Website [www.lloyd’] reports that the impact of avian flu may not be confined to the virus turning into a human pandemic. “Cara New, resident expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear technology for intelligence company Exclusive Analysis said that insurers could be faced with further problems if the virus leaps from fowl to pigs or horses,” the bulletin indicated.

Scientists, political and business leaders have focused their main concerns on the virus being transmitted to humans from infected birds, and then mutating into a form that could spread between infected individuals. The result could be a worldwide pandemic causing the loss of millions of lives.

So far the disease has been found responsible for 70 deaths – all of them in Southeast Asia – and all as a result of contact with infected birds. Two new deaths were recently reported from Indonesia, and two from Vietnam, where the infected individuals failed to respond to anti-viral drug treatments.

New pointed out that avian flu affected horses in an outbreak in Jilin, China in 1989, and warned that any infection of pigs or equine stocks would hit breeders and farmers hard.

“The 1989 outbreak, which involved a different strain of avian flu from the H5N1 strain currently causing concern, left as many as 20 percent of the infected horses dead,” said the article. “Equine flu is currently the most common respiratory tract infection of stabled horses.”

New also noted that pigs, which can be infected by both avian and human flu viruses, can serve as a “mixing vessel” for the two strains, which could produce a virus capable of jumping between humans. Traces of the current strain of avian flu have already been found in at least one pig in Vietnam and two in China.

The article explained that “scientists suspect that bird flu strains travelling through infected pigs were involved in the flu pandemics of 1918, 1957 and 1968, which killed millions.” New said that given flu pandemics have occurred at relatively regular intervals in recent history, it may well be a case of “when, not if” the next flu pandemic strikes.

She also indicated that an H5N1 pandemic or other flu pandemic would most likely start in Asia, but could be expected to spread globally within a week. “People forget that the flu already kills as many as one million people each year, and conservative estimates are that an avian flu pandemic could possibly kill between five and 20 million,” she warned.

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