According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year’s flu season was one of the worst recorded in almost a decade. The situation became so dire that beleaguered hospitals across Chicago were forced to reject admission of hundreds of infected patients, due to facility overcrowding. Now, amidst the chaos of the government shutdown, experts fear patient healthcare could be in jeopardy.
MedSpring Chief Medical Officer Jon L. Belsher cogitated over last year’s event, as well as the advantages of receiving prompt flu vaccination. Belsher suggests that the problems seen in Chicago are a stark reminder of just how dangerous the flu can become; as the virus is incredibly contagious, it can rapidly spread through households, schools and places of employment.
Influenza can cause serious complications in certain groups of people within society, and can even lead to hospitalization and death. On average, during the flu season, 90 percent of all flu-related deaths are observed in patients over 65 years of age.
MedSpring is a professional healthcare center, based in Texas and Illinois, that offers a series of walk in clinics. The organization is now offering inexpensive flu shots to protect against strains of influenza, and is urging patients to ensure they follow guidelines defined by healthcare agencies.
The Flu Vaccination and “At Risk” Groups
Flu vaccinations stimulate the patient’s immune system using an attenuated variant of a particular pathogen, its toxins or its surface antigens. Within around two weeks following
injection, the patient’s immune system will begin churning out antibodies, directed against the foreign body.
Traditional flu vaccines are designed to protect against either three or four different flu viruses, called trivalent or quadrivalent vaccines, respectively. Trivalent vaccines protect against two forms of the influenza A virus, as well as one form of influenza B. The quadrivalent vaccine offers protection against two influenza A and two influenza B viruses.
The latest trivalent influenza vaccines for the 2013/2014 flu season are made from the following influenza A and influenza B viral pathogens:
- A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)
- A(H3N2) virus
- B/Massachusetts/2/2012-like viral pathogen
The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months should acquire a flu shot, as per the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). However, the following groups should ensure they receive their annual flu vaccine in a timely fashion, as they are most “at risk”:
- Pregnant females
- Children under five years of age, and individuals over 65
- Patients with specific medical conditions (e.g. asthma, chronic lung disease and diabetes)
- Health care practitioners, caregivers and other employees who work with at risk groups
Shutdown Chaos to Disrupt CDC Flu Program
With the shutdown having endured for over ten days now, a number of crucial services have been significantly disrupted. There remains a blackout of government websites, whilst scientific research is stymied and healthcare departments barely lumber on.
The CDC is no exception, with thousands of its employees now in unpaid furlough. Recently, a number of food-borne infection experts were drafted in to help combat the recent Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, which is rapidly spreading throughout numerous states of America.
With the flu season now in its infancy, hospitalizations are already starting to be reported. Since the CDC in its crippled state, however, state reports will not be analyzed or published until the government shutdown subsides.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, county health officials have reported the very first influenza hospitalization for this year’s flu season, affecting a child under the age of 18. However, a spokesperson for Salt Lake County Health Department, Nicholas Rupp, was quick to reassure citizens that immunization programs would remain unaffected, since vaccines had already been purchased and stockpiled.
The Department of Health and Human Services recently released a summary of activities that would be impacted by the government shutdown. According to the document, the National Institute of Health, Health Resources and Services Administration, Administration for Children and Families, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration would all be affected, among many others.
Specifically, the CDC would be entirely unable to support its seasonal influenza program. In addition, the detection of infectious diseases would be disrupted, along with genetic and molecular analyses. Adding to this, the organization will no longer be able to provide updates on disease treatment and prevention strategies, whilst “support to state and local partners,” over monitoring of infectious diseases, would also be impaired.
For the second week in a row, the CDC’s FluView activity report was absent. As a consequence, information relating to circulating influenza strains remains limited. This is causing great concern amongst healthcare authorities, as information from the FluView report is vital in determining whether vaccinated patients are likely to be protected from a particular flu strain, and the probable efficacy of antiviral drugs.
For example, James Nordin, of the HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research, explained that past strains of influenza had been resistant to amantadine, but sensitive to Tamiflu; unfortunately, without crucial CDC data, practitioners won’t know precisely which drug to administer.
Meanwhile, speaking to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), CDC spokesman Tom Skinner described some of the activities that CDC personnel were still engaged in:
“CDC continues to provide limited support for respiratory disease/influenza outbreak investigations, and emergency processing of influenza laboratory samples for potential pandemic strains, to comply with International Health Regulations [IHR].”
In the event that a novel influenza strain were to materialize, Skinner maintains that the positions of furloughed employees would be reinstated to tackle the threat.
The CDC continues to urge all citizens over the age of six months to receive their annual flu vaccines, amidst the chaos of the government shutdown. It remains to be seen precisely how the latest standoff on Capitol Hill will affect the handling of influenza infections.
By: James Fenner
HHS Summary Report