US Public Health Put at Risk by Government Shutdown

“A Ticking Time Bomb…”

With the federal government shutdown and federal public health workers deemed “non-essential,” U.S. public health has been compromised at a time when we are facing numerous disease outbreaks, a hurricane watch, and a host of other new and emerging threats, such as MERS coronavirus and H7N9. The shutdown has also placed 9 million women and children at risk because WIC funding has stopped.

Joplin Missouri -- zygomycosis is an aggressiv...

(Photo credit: marsmet521)

“This is the ticking time bomb scenario. The public health enterprise needs all components—federal, state, and local—to be functioning optimally to safeguard the American public,” says ASTHO Executive Director Paul E. Jarris, MD, MBA. “We never know when the next severe public health emergency will strike. If it occurs when federal public health agencies are operating at minimal capacity, the consequences in American lives will be dire.”

CDC has furloughed more than 65 percent of its workforce and is unable to conduct in-depth disease outbreak investigations during the shutdown. States rely on CDC to help identify outbreaks, particularly ones that cross state lines.

“CDC had to furlough 8,754 people,” CDC Director Thomas Frienden wrote on Twitter on Oct. 1. “They protected you yesterday, can’t tomorrow. Microbes/other threats didn’t shut down. We are less safe.”

Public health learned a year ago how important rapid identification is when the multistate fungal meningitis outbreak occurred. Working together, the U.S. public health system saved hundreds if not thousands of lives as the source of the contamination was identified, potentially tainted product was pulled, and those potentially exposed were contacted and began treatment regimens as soon as symptoms occurred.

Nine million of our most vulnerable pregnant women and infants will lose access to nutritious food and health services as states quickly draw down and deplete the funding they have available. As a result of the shutdown, no additional WIC funding will be available.

Preparedness for natural and manmade disasters has also been put at risk during the shutdown. A hurricane is developing in the Gulf of Mexico and could reach land anywhere from Louisiana to Florida. However, the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response can only maintain minimal readiness and limited staffing, so states and localities will have to respond to disasters with diminished federal capabilities.

America’s food is less safe now than it was before the shutdown. Food inspection for meat, poultry, and eggs continues during the shutdown, but FDA has halted inspections and oversight of the rest of the food in the supply chain — food that can still result in foodborne disease outbreaks. Two years ago, Listeria linked to cantaloupes killed 33 people. Without routine inspections, such outbreaks could increase, and, as already stated, CDC’s ability to identify and trace them would be compromised.

From: Association of State and Territorial Health Officials

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