David Rein: For CDC, shutdown is no joke

October 11, 2013 

The grandstanding and rhetoric out of Washington over the shutdown can seem almost funny at times, but unfortunately there is nothing funny about closing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The fact of the matter is that Congress just furloughed the nation's disease police.

Here in Atlanta, thousands of government scientists were told to go home. According to CDC spokesperson Barbara Reynolds: "The vast majority of CDC's activities have shut down completely."

While many Tea Party conservatives argue that we can do without these people for a while, CDC's director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, isn't so sure. "I usually don't lose sleep despite the threats that we face," he said, "but I am losing sleep because we don't know if we'll be able to find and stop things that might kill people."

The Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is surely one of the things that has Dr. Frieden up at night. According to CDC's MERS website (which, incidentally, hasn't been updated since the shutdown began) MERS is a severe viral respiratory infection, first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012, that can be spread from person to person. So far it has killed approximately 45 percent of the people known to be infected by it. Despite intense public health efforts to contain the virus, the number of reported cases has increased from 14 in early March to 130 today. Not to be alarmist, but a transmissible respiratory virus with a 45 percent case fatality rate has the potential to be a civilization ender.

Right now, while our politicians are bickering about the budget, millions of religious Muslims from around the world are making their annual pilgrimage to Mecca in the heart of Saudi Arabia, the epicenter of known MERS cases. While there they will pray together in very close quarters with millions of other pilgrims, and then return to their homes around the world. Under normal circumstances, the CDC would be monitoring the global movement of millions of individuals in and out of airports and transit terminals, working to identify and contain that one key mutation or traveler who could unleash a global epidemic. With the government closed, I wonder if we can count on that protection this month.

If MERS is too scary to think about, let's talk about some issues much closer to home. If you have kids, the chances are good that they are involved in some sort of youth soccer, football or baseball league.

According to the CDC, over 200,000 people a year are admitted to emergency departments for sports-related brain injuries, with by far the highest rate of injury occurring among young boys between the ages of 10 and 19. According to the scientific journal Radiology, we now know that even a single concussion can result in brain damage.

With the understanding that kids and concussions are a dangerous mix, this year the CDC funded a multi-year project to study how public health policies and laws can be used to prevent concussions and reduce the harm they cause to children when they occur. This research, like hundreds of other vital CDC functions, has been deemed "non-essential" and has been mothballed until Congress can settle its differences.

It's also flu season. Another of CDC's non-essential functions is to make sure that the public gets the vaccine we need to keep our kids and their grandparents out of the hospital. CDC's work to help people with diabetes avoid having their feet amputated? Non-essential. What about their efforts to prevent infants from acquiring HIV and hepatitis B at birth? Or controlling deadly hospital-acquired infections? Or protecting the food supply? CDC's non-essential functions seem pretty essential to me, especially now that they're gone.

Listen, everyone knows that this shutdown is going to end. Prolonging the inevitable helps no one and only puts more people at risk every day.

To be sure, there are legitimate issues regarding the budget and health care, over which reasonable people can disagree. Some of these disagreements can be intense and heartfelt. However, shutting down the nation's public health system is not an acceptable way to find an answer. Congress needs to reopen the government immediately and put the CDC and other federal agencies that protect and serve us back to work.

David Rein, a Truman National Security Fellow (trumanproject.org) has more than 15 years experience in CDC public health research. He lives in Atlanta.

David Rein, a Truman National Security Fellow (trumanproject.org) has more than 15 years experience in CDC public health research. He lives in Atlanta.

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