What The Shutdown Means For Your Health

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The government is closed — which means that important public health programs like disease-tracking and food safety efforts, not to mention important basic medical research, may be going dark.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contingency staffing plan involves furloughing about half of its employees, who work at agencies ranging from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which is responsible for monitoring outbreaks (such as flu) as well as the nation’s global AIDS efforts and the national childhood immunization efforts, to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which handles food safety issues, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the country’s largest funder of biomedical research. Here’s what the shutdown will mean for many of the programs that we rely on to maintain our health.

(MORE: How to Find The Right Flu Vaccine)

Food Safety
Remember the tainted bags of salad that led to a stomach bug outbreak for over 400 people earlier this summer? Better hope that doesn’t happen now, because 45% of the FDA’s 14,779 employees are furloughed. So daily inspections of food manufacturers, monitoring imported foods and most lab testing of samples for potential food contamination issues will be put on hold.

Thankfully, the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), will allow 9,633 employees to continue to regulate meat and poultry since inadequate monitoring could endanger human life, and the meat industry would shut down since it cannot sell meat without any USDA inspectors.  But losing 13% of that food safety task force could take its toll, and the USDA writes in its plan that “a lengthy hiatus would affect the safety of human life and have serious adverse effects on the industry, the consumer and the Agency.”

Infectious Disease
The CDC will keep 68% of its staff–8,754 people–at home, which means there will be no investigations into outbreaks that may be happening across states. That’s not great timing, given that flu season is about to start and the agency is responsible for keeping tabs on the number of flu cases and the always unpredictable strains of influenza that can pop up at any time. The reduced staff means the CDC will not track flu cases as usual, but flu vaccines will still be delivered to doctor’s offices and health departments.

Cutting back on disease surveillance means potential outbreaks may go undetected. For example, a hepatitis A outbreak earlier this year sickened 162 people in 10 states. If a similar situation were to occur now, with less than half of the disease detectors on watch, the genetic and molecular testing, as well as the sleuthing required to track the cases, probably wouldn’t occur. The remaining 4,071 CDC staffers are only allowed to provide minimal support and monitor disease activity in their own region.

The agency will continue to operate its emergency center for any new or highly contagious infectious–but even that effort will be reduced significantly. Its ability to detect major emerging diseases like MERS virus is certainly compromised with a skeleton staff.

Scientific Research
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) won’t be issuing any new grants to fund research during the shutdown, and as the nation’s largest funder of biomedical research, that also puts thousands of scientists at academic institutions around the country in professional limbo. Even NASA missions are now delayed.

The NIH and NSF will also stop maintaining their websites, which many people consult for important updated information on everything from disease symptoms to standard treatments and the latest clinical trials. Some federal researchers at these institutes are allowed to do minimal, but essential, work such as monitoring patients already enrolled in NIH’s clinical studies and making sure that research animal populations stay alive. Other scientists working for universities can continue their government-funded projects until their funding runs out.

So here’s hoping that this flu season is a mild one, and that our food safety system doesn’t let any disease-causing bugs through. Because there won’t be too many people around to do much about a new influenza bug or a nasty case of salmonella.