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CDC shutdown affects surveillance of flu & MERS

October 15, 2013
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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The battle over the budget may end up creating a new battle of the microbes, infectious disease specialists warn. The government shutdown forced the furlough of about 80 percent of the staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just as the 2013-14 flu season is beginning to ramp up.

During the furlough, most of the information systems used to gather and track public health data—including drug-resistant infections and new strains of the flu—have been turned off, a CDC public affairs representative told MedPage Today. The lack of surveillance is troubling, since the CDC uses its regional data to track the spread of the seasonal flu virus and adjust the distribution of the flu vaccine to regions with the heaviest growth.

An unexpected version of the flu can circumvent the antibodies created by the annual flu shot. Last year, the influenza A H3N2 strain was largely unaffected by the flu shot for those over age 65. However, without constant surveillance data, a dangerous strain could spread unchecked throughout a community or region before healthcare facilities and public health officials know an outbreak is happening.

But the crucial issue isn’t 2013; it’s next year’s flu season. No data collection means no feedback on how this year’s flu vaccines performed or how the vaccines should be adjusted for next year.

Infection control specialists also are deeply concerned about the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in Saudi Arabia, a country to which millions of the world’s Muslims will travel this month for the Haj and the Umrah, two important religious pilgrimages to the city of Mecca. More than 11,000 American Muslims participate in the Haj each year, the CDC notes. The shutdown at the CDC means no one will be watching how the disease may affect the mainland United States, as pilgrims return from the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. State Department has issued an advisory recommending that those with chronic diseases, cancer or diabetes, those who are over age 65 and those who are pregnant should consider postponing the trip.

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