Wednesday, October 2, 2013

US Government Shutdown Slows MERS Research, Monitoring

This notice appears on the website of the
National Institutes of Health
The impasse in Congress which has resulted in a shutdown of non-essential government services will have large impacts on the agencies which operate behind the scenes, inspecting our food, protecting our health and monitoring for disease outbreaks, including MERS.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will furlough 40,000 employees, covering a wide range of agencies from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the Food and Drug Administration.

The NIH has issued temporary pink slips for 73% of its staff and will be forced to halt important disease research. They have placed a notice on their website which reads,
Due to the lapse in government funding, the information on this web site may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the web site may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.
Updates regarding government operating status and resumption of normal operations can be found at"
The CDC, which will lose 63% of its employees, says the cutbacks will prevent them from monitoring the major flu outbreaks currently being tracked, including the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the H7N9 Avian Flu.

The HHS, in their "2014 Contingency Staffing Plan for Operations in the Absence of Enacted Annual Appropriations" says that
"CDC will continue minimal support to protect the health and well-being of US citizens here and abroad through a significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations, processing of laboratory samples, and maintaining the agency’s 24/7 emergency operations center."
These budget cuts come at a crucial time in the progression of the MERS virus. Its source is unknown and has a terrifying death rate of about 50%. It can be spread by seemingly healthy carriers and no vaccine is available. The vast majority of cases have originated in Saudi Arabia and this month millions of religious pilgrims will be traveling there from over a hundred countries.

There are unconfirmed reports of an ill woman in a hospital in Ottawa, Canada who recently traveled from Dubai who is being tested for MERS and CIDRAP reports three more cases in Saudi Arabia.

As Congress' political games bring vital disease research and monitoring to a halt, health professionals hold their collective breath knowing this dangerous virus could be reaching a tipping point and jump from being a regional concern to a global pandemic.

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