When reading about all the programs that would end up cut or functionally shut down, much of the media and blogosphere focused on the immediate social/artistic effects of the shutdown. No National Parks Service, no Smithsonian, no Library of Congress, fewer museums and concerts, no endowments for the arts, and make no mistake that having access to arts and recreation and nature is a very bad thing it isn’t close to what should be scaring us all about the government shutdown: CDC/FDA furloughs.
The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration are invaluable to the health and safety of the American public and, to a lesser extent, the world. The CDC monitors disease outbreaks across the country so that they can be responded to in an informed and timely fashion, does research on new vaccines for diseases- including next year’s flu virus vaccine which was scheduled to start in about a week- and contributes to eradicating diseases found worldwide, while sharing its research and collaborating with its equivalents worldwide. The FDA, among other things, inspects food and drugs for health violations and watches for abuses or ways to try and sneakily cut corners that may put public health at risk. Whatever you feel about government and their role in your life, the CDC and the FDA are two organizations who- to varying degrees of success- try to keep diseases, toxins, poisons, and general human idiocy from contaminating your food and water supply. Of all the things that could have been shut down in the US Government, the CDC and FDA shouldn’t have been on that list. I’d rather see NASA shuttered a hundred times than be effectively blind to disease outbreaks.
And, well, what do you know? There’s been an outbreak of Salmonella predominantly centered in California. So far there’s a staggering 278 cases of poisoning from Salmonella that has been, thankfully, tracked by the USDA back to what they believe is its source. The problem? The outbreak is still spreading. Foster Farms hasn’t issued a recall, and has only issued a statement saying you should properly cook your chicken, and the CDC won’t be doing any cross state work to determine the severity of the outbreak and steps that could be taken to prevent escalation because, well, they can’t. Here, I’ll let Maryn McKenna from Wired take over:
That means that the lab work and molecular detection that can link far-apart cases and define the size and seriousness of outbreaks are not happening. At the CDC, which operates the national foodborne-detection services FoodNet and PulseNet, scientists couldn’t work on this if they wanted to; they have been locked out of their offices, lab and emails. (At a conference I attended last week, 10 percent of the speakers did not show up because they were CDC personnel and risked being fired if they traveled even voluntarily.)
That is terrifying. Salmonella isn’t the worst possible outbreak in America, but does it really matter at this point? The people who are supposed to be monitoring the diseases and inspecting our food simply aren’t able to even if they wanted to they aren’t able to do their jobs and protect public health. We need to get the CDC and the USDA back up to full running speed before something worse than an already large outbreak of Salmonella hits the United States.
(Update: Apparently the Salmonella outbreak has gotten the CDC back to work. Good, but it shouldn’t have taken people’s lives being at risk from an outbreak of a deadly bacteria for the CDC to have been kept working.)