'Blind spots' could hamper flu scrutiny during shutdown



The government shutdown has crippled the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to monitor the flu this season, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The last FluView, the CDC’s national surveillance summary, was done for the week of Sept. 21 and no more will be done until the shutdown ends, spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said. Samples are still coming in from around the country but the CDC can only process the “unusual specimens” that state or local labs can’t identify, she said.

“We will look at it because we will consider it a potential pandemic or novel strain,” Reynolds said.

“We have a responsibility to keep an eye on those.”

The CDC also can’t do any routine testing of samples to see if the current flu vaccine is a good match for the actual flu strains circulating around the country and it also can’t do testing to see if strains are developing resistance to the antiviral drugs currently in use, she said.

The information about resistance is important from a public health standpoint but the CDC surveillance is most helpful as an advanced warning, said Dr. James Wilde, professor of emergency medicine at Georgia Regents University and attending physician in the pediatric Emergency Department at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

“I rely on the CDC to kind of give me an idea of when flu is coming,” he said.

The shutdown will not affect states doing their own surveillance and the Georgia Department of Public Health began its surveillance last week, with its first report out at the end of this week, spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email. There is some activity in the state, “nothing out of the ordinary,” she wrote, and “we are only at the beginning of flu season.”

There is an alternative for monitoring flu that has proven to be highly accurate and that is Google Flu Trends, Wilde said. The company aggregates search query data and has found in years past a close relationship between the number of people searching for flu-related topics and the number of people who have the flu. There is some limitation to the data Google has versus what the CDC provides, Wilde said.

“It gives us no information about what strains we’re looking at, what sensitivities we’ve got, what the mortality rates, the deaths,” he said, “It doesn’t give us any of that. All that Google Flu Trends tells us is where is flu, in what part of the country and how active is it in that part of the country. But at least it does give us some information that at least temporarily will not be available through CDC.”

The CDC’s mission is to detect, stop and prevent threats, and at least part of that mission is being hampered by shutdown, Reynolds said.

“It is difficult at this point,” she said. “We feel like there are blind spots and those blind spots are getting bigger as we continue with the shutdown.”

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