Government Shutdown Closes CDC During Deadliest Flu Epidemic Ever
The continuing goverment shutdown that we find ourselves in leaves much to be alarmed about, but nothing less settling than the closure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.
The CDC, of course, studies the nature and severity of diease outbreak. During the 2013 government shutdown, this meant that the CDC employees who tracked food-borne illness had to be brought back from leave to contain a national salmonella outbreak that was in the midst of ravaging our country. It left 76 people hospitalized across 18 states.
With this year's dominant influenza strain reportedly being the deadliest in history, able to withstand the majority of vaccines as egg-based mutations in the vaccines render the medicine ineffective, the prospect of empty labs at the CDC is scarier than ever. Though a contingency plan assures that flu tracking will still go on as usual, this shutdown nonetheless should have you washing your hands with soap and warm water for twice as long.
"During a bad influenza season, tens of thousands of Americans die from influenza, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and millions become ill," an anonymous CDC employee in Atlanta told The New Yorker. "We're having one of the worst flu seasons in recent years. And we're right in the middle of it. It's an H3N2 virus year, which tends to hit older people and younger children really hard. We tend to have a higher number of deaths and hospitalizations in H3N2 years. And we can't communicate to clinicians, health departments, and the public in the way that we would like because of the shutdown. We can't provide accurate information and the tools they need to prevent deaths from flu. When most of our workforce is sent home, we can't do our jobs effectively. That's scary."
The employee added that, though they have multiple surveillance systems going in the flu division including outpatient clinics reporting numbers and state-run public health labs reporting on the types of flu they're tracking, weekly information reports have ceased.
""The last shutdown, it was in October, which wasn't the height of flu season," explained the employee. "But they were gearing up for people to get their flu vaccines. We're farther in this time. The flu division, if the government were open, would be doing a lot of communications activities-talking to people who are at high risk for getting seriously ill from flu about going to their doctor promptly, outreach to clinicians to make sure they're following guidelines about prescribing influenza antiviral drugs, and other public-health-outreach campaigns. These grind to a halt during a shutdown."
The big influenza labs at the CDC don't just look at he giant epidemic of seasonal flu, but for new viruses that have yet to be studied. In the past these have included zoonotic viruses, like avian flu or a swine flu, that can be transferred from animals to humans who are not immune. The CDC also tracks mutations of the virus. Having less lab capacity directly threatens these activities.
Having your budget cut by the executive branch does, too. As of now, the CDC's budget has still yet to be decided. "The uncertainty with the budget has been challenging, in general," added the source. "But not knowing how long this will last is hard, too. It makes it very hard to plan. If the furlough goes on for a while, basic scientific evidence about what's actually going on from a public-health point of view may not get out to Americans in a timely manner."
In related and equally terrifying news, scientists created the first biological teleporter last year, capable of faxing viruses. Genes were edited from inside the human body for the first time last year, too. The hope is that this experimental process can isolate any virus and reconfigure it to work for the body instead of against it.