How the Government Shutdown Will Affect Influenza Across the U.S.

Tamiflu packs
A worker at a Brazilian pharmacological laboratory packs pills of oseltamivir, an antiviral medication, on July 30, 2009. ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images

The shutdown of the U.S. government has raised concern about worsening an already dangerous flu season. As of now, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention will be continuing its "immediate response" to the flu season, including its influenza surveillance programs.

At first, the CDC was planning to temporarily shut the flu program, STAT reported Friday. That sounded bad—after all, this winter has brought a moderately severe flu season, with a relatively ineffective vaccine, a particularly dangerous strain and widespread illness across the country. And while the agency will "report out critical information needed [...] to track, prevent and treat the disease,"according to a Health and Human Services statement, there's no indication of what that information is.

The shutdown won't worsen the severity of flu season, this year or next year, unless the government shutdown lasts into spring. Though the CDC is crucial for flu surveillance efforts, state and local health labs actually do the majority of the heavy lifting.

"CDC doesn't really collect original front-line data. It comes from local and state health departments," Dr. Tim Jones, state epidemiologist for the Tennessee Department of Health, told Newsweek. Those departments send data to the CDC, which creates a map of the national picture.

That collecting is on hold during the shutdown, so we won't have an up-to-date and accurate national picture until the shutdown ends. "But where diseases are occurring and actually affecting people, nothing is going to stop," said Jones.

But the shutdown could impact flu season in other ways. Former CDC director Tom Frieden told the Washington Post that during the 2013 shutdown, samples waiting to be tested began piling up. The CDC also works with manufacturers to deal with shortages of antiviral drugs, which has happened in some areas this season. The current CDC contingency plan does not specifically indicate if either of these activities will be affected.

Tamiflu packages
Capsules of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication used to treat the flu, are displayed at a pharmacy in Auckland, New Zealand on April 28, 2009. Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Flu testing is also tied in with federal funding. Although most public health departments can test for influenza on their own, some of the most detailed analyses—like the exact strains circulating or whether or not the virus is susceptible—are done by labs with CDC contracts. If the shutdown continues further into flu season, we could miss information showing that the viral strains were changing, explained Dr. David Hooper, chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.

If the strain mutates to the point where the vaccine might be even less effective, doctors might prescribe antiviral medication more aggressively, Hooper said. That would be especially true for people who are more likely to have serious or even deadly complications from the infection.

A very long-lasting government shutdown could also affect the development of next year's flu vaccine. The Food and Drug Administration's advisory committee for vaccines typically meets around March to begin the process of selecting strains to include in the vaccine for next year's flu season. No date for the 2018 meeting has been set yet. Data from the World Health Organization as well as the CDC from the previous year's flu season is typically presented at these meetings.

If the shutdown resolves by Monday afternoon, when a Senate vote on a temporary spending bill is expected, then the effect should be minimal. "Now, if it goes into June, it's a different story," Jones said. But for now, "people don't need to panic or really even worry."