Influenza doesn’t care about your politics

This is the second in a series of posts about the government shutdown’s impact on the nation’s health.

Whatever your politics, you should be afraid. Very afraid. Not only are radical Republicans—a term that once referred to the GOPs principled opponents to slavery and now simply means reckless—holding our government hostage in the hopes of delaying President Obama’s flagship health insurance program, but in the process they are harming us all. They are not only harming the government workers and their families who have been furloughed in the wake of this foolishness, but their actions have led to the suspension of essential programs that protect the public’s health.

Flu image (2)
The vaccine is here, but will we know when the flu arrives?

Last week we wrote of the impending post-shutdown calamity as funding runs out for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (known as WIC), putting almost 9 million WIC beneficiaries at risk. The low-income women and their babies who rely on WIC to receive infant formula are likely to be the most severely harmed should the shutdown not end quickly (how does that make you feel Speaker Boehner?!?).

Another program that has been shuttered with a less immediate though potentially devastating impact, is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Seasonal Influenza Surveillance. According to a Department of Health and Human Services memo on “Contingency Staffing Plan for Operations,” in the event of a shutdown the CDC would be “unable to support the annual seasonal influenza program.”

The influenza surveillance program tracks flu activity around the country through the agency’s Epidemiology and Prevention Branch. The program “collects, compiles and analyzes information on influenza activity year round in the United States and produces FluView, a weekly influenza surveillance report.” Data is gathered in partnership with “state, local, and territorial health departments, public health and clinical laboratories, vital statistics offices, healthcare providers, clinics, and emergency departments.”

Every week the program reports positive flu tests, the types of flu viruses circulating, including warnings about novel viruses, the number of outpatients with flu-like illnesses, flu associated mortality, lab confirmed flu-associated hospitalizations, and reports by state health departments showing the geographic spread of influenza.  The CDC also monitors other disease outbreaks around the globe—such as the newly identified Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) so that we can be prepared.

Why is this so important to the public’s health? Because without information we can’t target resources in areas burdened by high flu morbidity and mortality, we lack a tool to warn us of a potential pandemic, and we are limited in our ability to acquire the information needed to develop vaccines. Contagious diseases are something to worry about. CDC estimates show “that from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, flu-associated deaths ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.” The beginning and end of flu season also varies a lot, as does the virulence of the strains circulating around the globe. On the CDCs flu website, you can still take a look at the figures for past years and up until the week of the shutdown. This variation is a key reason why ongoing surveillance is needed – to protect against the flu and also to detect, analyze, and devise strategies against new viruses, which are always emerging.

Regardless of the shutdown, sometime in the coming weeks, the seasonal influenza virus will begin infecting Americans in numbers large enough to cause concern among infectious disease doctors, epidemiologists, and thinking Americans who don’t want to put their lives at risk simply to score political points. What will it take for the extremists and their enablers in Congressional leadership (that’s you Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor) to realize just how much damage this shutdown might do to us all?

Janet Golden, a Rutgers University history professor, specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women. Michael Yudell is an associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health.

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