CDC, NIH Squeezed by Recent Government Shutdown- How Will Flu Season be Affected?

By Bright and Brainy MidlevelU Intern Melanie Chen

The government shutdown has slowed down federal health agencies.  Meanwhile, flu season is just beginning to ramp up while funding for flu vaccines and other diseases continues to drop.

Since the government lapsed into a financial shutdown on October 1st, which marked the first day of the 2014 fiscal year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already been forced to lay off 8,700 of its employees- about two-thirds of its entire staff.  With this reduction in employee strength, the CDC has ceased monitoring flu outbreaks and following up on new, unfamiliar strains of the illness.

Federal health officials say that the timing of the shutdown is problematic.  CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds stated, "Sad to say, they won't be bale to do it any longer, thus, preventing health care providers and consumers from attaining information on any outbreaks or new types of illnesses."

One of those key sources of information in "Flu View", a weekly national report compiled by the CDC that synopsizes the surveillance and geographic spread of influenza across the U.S.  "Flu View" is currently on halt, preventing local and state departments from receiving updates on new influenza strains.  As outbreaks arise this winter, directing vaccine programs across the country could prove to be more and more difficult without the CDC's supervision of flu statistics.  The setback could also impact next year's flu season, as each annual stock of vaccination relies heavily on the previous year's particular influenza strain.  Not being able to isolate and test currently circulating strains in CDC laboratories could have a far-reaching effect on future vaccine supplies. 

Another federal health agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is also dealing with the aftermath of the government shutdown.  NIH director Francis Collins estimates that for every week the government is shut down, the agency's renowned research hospital will have to turn away approximately two hundred patients, thirty of them children, hoping to enlist in experimental treatment studies. 

"This is the place where people have wanted to come when all else has failed," Collins told the Associated Press.  "It's heartbreaking". 

The shutdown hit the NIH at a particularly vulnerable time for scientific research.  Collins says this year is a historically bad one for scientists attempting to win funding for biomedical research projects.  Earlier this year, the NIH lost $1.5 billion due to automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, a government movement to slash $1 trillion from the national budget in an effort to reduce the national deficit. 

Most of that slash hit science funding platforms, meaning hundreds of projects around the country failed to receive, or lost, funding sources.  For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30th, 2013, NIH was able to fund only 16% of grant applications received, compared to 1 in 3 applications funded a year ago. 

"If you expected new treatments for cancer or a new universal influenza vaccine or discovering the causes of autism were going to move forward at the maximum it could, that will not be the case," Collins said.  "This is a profoundly discouraging day."

CDC director Dr. Tom Friedman reflects Collins's grim tone.  "I usually don't lose sleep despite the threats that we face, but I am losing sleep because we don't know if we'll be able to find and stop things that might kill people," Friedman told CBS News when the new fiscal year began.