Two weeks into the government shutdown, flu season is about to ramp up. And without full-scale infectious-disease surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts said, health consequences for the nation could range from unsettling to disastrous.
Normally, the CDC monitors influenza outbreaks across state lines. The agency continually analyzes circulating strains to detect the potential for brewing pandemics. And if there is any sign that a mutant virus is particularly virulent or has developed resistance to antiviral drugs, the CDC spreads targeted public health messages, develops new vaccines or takes other actions.
Now, little of that real-time vigilance is happening. The website that usually reports state-by-state cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the flu has not been updated since the shutdown began.
“Without CDC activity, which analyzes all of the information and feeds it back to everyone who needs to know, we’re flying blind,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine in Nashville. “The government may be closed. But the virus is not.”
Every year, the fight against the flu begins many months before the virus begins its annual march through the population, starting as early as October. By closely watching which strains are circulating around the world from month to month, the CDC leads the way in developing a seasonal vaccine that aims to protect people from what is predicted to be spreading through schools and workplaces all winter long.
So far, this year’s vaccine appears to be a good match to the virus that is just beginning to infect people around the United States. And there's plenty of vaccine to go around.
But it’s still extremely early in the season, and influenza is a volatile family of viruses that change constantly. Without notice, a new strain can become especially infectious and spread rapidly -- a risk that increases as the season wears on.