The government shutdown has put 800,000 people out of work and closed the national parks, but that’s not the only way that people are being hurt by congress’s inability to decide on a budget.
Because of the shutdown, 52% of the Health and Human Services staff (which includes the EPA, FDA, NIH, and others) were put on furlough, but that varies by the agency involved.
Here are a few ways that staffing cuts to these agencies are impacting your health:
1. Clinical trials — The NIH has slowed enrollment in clinical trials as its staff has been cut by about three quarters. That means cancer patents who are on their last options are being turned away from potentially life-saving treatments. An earlier article from The Atlantic noted that no new patients were being accepted into trials, but the latest, from the New York Times, says the shutdown has slowed but not halted clinical trial enrollment.
Seven new trials had been set to begin, but have been delayed, according to The New York Times.
2. Flu surveillance — If the shutdown lasts into the beginning of flu season, the CDC will not be monitoring the progression of disease over time. Every flu season is different — different strains are more virulent than others and the virus is continually changing. By monitoring the season as it progresses, the CDC can let us know if there’s an especially virulent strain.
3. Flu awareness — All health awareness campaigns are stopped, so there won’t be constant reminders to go out and get a flu shot, or to constantly wash our hands.
4. Next year’s flu vaccine — An extended shutdown will hamper our ability to create vaccine for next year. Soon the CDC will need to start watching the developing outbreaks in other areas of the world to get a grasp on what might be coming around to get us next year and prepare a vaccine to stop it.
5. CDC and salmonella outbreak — More than 250 people have fallen sick in 18 states because of chicken from California infected with Salmonella Heidelberg. But because of the government shutdown, the CDC’s food-borne illness tracking experts weren’t on the case.
The New York Times relays that the team is back up to almost full staff because they were deemed essential, but because of the delay, it’s possible that the outbreak will last longer than it should have.
6. Delayed inspections on imported foods — “FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities,” according to the HHS shutdown plan.
About 90% of the shrimp Americans eat is imported, and inspection of those imports is done by the FDA. These shrimp come from places like Thailand and India, which have notoriously disgusting aquaculture practices.
Some have suggested that all FDA inspections have been halted by the shutdown, but an FDA spokesperson told Quartz that the reduced staffing will only delay inspections, not a full stop on inspections. Either way, the shutdown makes it more likely that tainted foods will get to our tables.
The USDA’ Food Safety and Inspection Service monitors beef, poultry, and egg products, which will be maintained.
7. Air and water monitoring — With the government shut down, the EPA has stopped enforcing regulations that protect against toxic emissions into the air and water, according to The Hill. We might not think of it often, but disposing of industrial byproducts is expensive. Without someone policing them, companies could very well be spewing pollution into our atmosphere, and rivers.
These pollutions could do untold environmental damage and cause human illness through exposure to poisoned air and water.
8. Basic research — future research has been hampered already by the sequester and budget cuts, and on top of that the NIH and NSF have suspended their grant proposal preparation and submission websites, and no new funding opportunities will be issued. No new reviews will happen and no new awards will be granted.
Researchers can continue working, if there are funds available, but no new payments will be made. This covers basic and applied research and won’t be restarted until the shutdown has ended. This research is potentially life-saving in the longer run.
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