Almost everybody has heard by now about how the government shutdown has forced the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to turn away several hundred severely ill cancer patients from potentially life-saving clinical trials.
Those cases are heartbreaking because of the urgency of the patients’ medical situations. But the shutdown has put all Americans’ health at risk. That’s because thousands of so-called non-essential government workers play an all-too-essential role in protecting our health.
Let’s start with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As Minnesota-based science writer Emily Sohn explained in an article published Monday by Discovery News, the shutdown furloughed two-thirds of the CDC’s staff, severely limited the agency’s ability to identify and investigate disease outbreaks:
And it’s not just the flu [which kills thousands of Americans each year] that has the potential to cause major problems during the current shutdown. The CDC plays an essential role in monitoring infectious diseases like measles and polio, as well as foodborne pathogens, like an ongoing salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people around the country. Careful surveillance is the only way to link cases in different states or countries as the same emerging problem.
The federal government is also responsible for conducting routine inspections of high-security labs that investigate extremely dangerous pathogens like ebola viruses.
Without a full staff at work, the potential for health crises to develop will only escalate.
Routine food inspections suspended
The government shutdown has also caused the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to halt its review and approval of new medical products and drugs, as well as its routine inspections of domestic and international food facilities.
“Excepted FDA inspectors are prioritizing their work based on public health need and are being deployed to respond to recalls, outbreaks or other situations requiring immediate attention,” an FDA spokesperson told NBC News reporter Matthew DeLuca last week. “However, they will not be conducting important routine work to support inspections.”
According to the New York Times, the FDA reduced its goal of inspecting about 200 domestic food-processing facilities per week to none during the shutdown. It has also reduced its inspections of imported food.
Nor will the health risks resulting from the curtailing of these inspections be resolved immediately when the government reopens, as DeLuca’s article explains:
While furloughed FDA workers sit at home, a mountain of overdue inspections is piling up for them back at the office, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Forty-five percent of the administration’s workers have been furloughed.
“For every day the government is shut down, it’s going to take them many weeks to make up the work that’s not being done,” Smith DeWaal said on Tuesday. “When they come back to work there’ll be a backlog of plants that should have been visited during this period that aren’t being visited. Our inspection system is already pretty anemic, and now it’s not even moving, now it’s totally dysfunctional.”
Disruption of important research
The government shutdown’s potential for harming our health reaches far beyond the hampering of essential health-related activities conducted by employees of the NIH, CDC and FDA, however.
The Union of Concern Scientists asked its 20,000-plus network of scientists across the country to describe how the shutdown was affecting their work. Here are reports of just a handful of the many accounts they received — accounts that illustrate the variety of ways that government employees help keep us and our families safe:
A toxicologist who works for the Environmental Protection Agency expressed great frustration that the crucial work of testing chemicals on the market for toxicity has been interrupted. This work had been slow and complex, and short of manpower. Now, things are worse, the scientist writes. “The next time you reach under the sink to pull out a cleaning product, ask yourself if you’d really like to know if it was causing cancer, or if it was safe.” The shutdown, the toxicologist concludes, will keep toxic chemicals on the shelves “longer than they otherwise should have.”
[Another federal scientist] writes, “I run a global chemistry forecast every day that is used by groups around the world as boundary conditions for regional air quality models. I have had to stop running these daily forecasts because they require the NASA GEOS-5 meteorology forecasts, which are not available due to the shutdown.”
A Midwestern scientist engaged on finding safe and effective treatments for the most vulnerable premature infants finds himself in a vulnerable place. He doesn’t know whether the advisory panel that will decide to support his training as a researcher on the comparative effectiveness of different treatments will be able to meet later this month, and he is out of research funds for the time being.
Let’s hope the government reopens soon — for the sake of our physical as well as our financial health.