A Few Ways the Government Shutdown Could Harm Your Health (And the World’s) by Maryn Mckeena

There’s going to be a lot — a lot — of coverage today on the federal shutdown, what it means and how long it might go on. I thought it might be worth quickly highlighting how it affects the parts of the government that readers here care most about: public health, global health, food safety and the spread of scary diseases.

Most of those government functions are contained within the Cabinet-level Department of Health and Human Services, where 52 percent of the employees have been sent home. So the news is not good.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention furloughed 68 percent of its people — not just here in Atlanta, but globally. Yesterday I asked a longtime acquaintance there what was likely to happen and she said:

I know that we will not be conducting multi-state outbreak investigations. States may continue to find outbreaks, but we won’t be doing the cross-state consultation and laboratory work to link outbreaks that might cross state borders, such as a recent Hep A outbreak. We will not be doing rapid response for vaccine preventable disease cases or outbreaks, such as measles. We won’t be monitoring seasonal influenza activity in the U.S. as flu season begins.

Surveillance for other emerging infectious disease outbreaks, such as H7N9 and MERS, will be weakened. We won’t be doing routine inspections of BSL3 and BSL 4 labs as part of the select agent program. Our work to prevent HIV/STDs and TB in the states using molecular epidemiology will be discontinued.

Let’s unpack that a little bit. In the US, the flu season is beginning. This year’s flu vaccine has been manufactured, and is either already in the hands of state and local health departments, or with doctors or on its way to them via the commercial middlemen who handle distribution for the manufacturers. (On Twitter today, Jim Garrow of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health confirmed that they already have an inventory of flu vaccine.)

So flu prevention won’t necessarily be harmed — except for those people who don’t get a flu shot unless the CDC’s public health campaigns remind them, because there won’t be any such campaigns. But flu surveillance, which the CDC conducts and also assembles out of data sent to it by health departments and by networks of physicians, is on the shelf. Here’s what the CDC’s flu-surveillance homepage looks like right now:

original page here.

And here is what that means: We are now at the start of flu season. If this season becomes a bad one — a rogue virus, an uneven epidemic, a concentration of cases in the elderly or the very young or in a particular city or state — we’ll have no way of knowing. And, for what it’s worth, no way of directing additional public-health or research help, because they’ve all been sent home. In tracking flu, one of the most unpredictable and mutable human-disease viruses around, we have been blinded. And if the shutdown continues more than a few weeks, then that blindness will also blanket development of next year’s flu vaccine — because within a few weeks, CDC researchers would start analyzing this year’s northern and southern hemisphere viruses to determine what ought to be included in next year’s vaccine mix.

That blindness also is not limited to the US. The CDC loans scientists and sends money to the World Health Organization and to dozens of countries in the industrialized and developing worlds. One of its specialties is helping to track the emergence of new flu viruses that have pandemic potential. That global spyglass has just been shuttered. And: we are less than two weeks from the official beginning of the hajj, the worldwide pilgrimage of observant Muslims to the holy sites of Saudi Arabia — where, if you’ve been following along, MERS has been slowly growing for more than a year. Health planners have been quietly fretting for months that the hajj might allow the spread of MERS outside of the Middle East — a reasonable fear, as that has happened in past hajj seasons with other diseases. But with the shutdown, we lose some of the most accurate tools for finding that out.

And this enforced ignorance of disease spread isn’t hypothetical. Just this morning, the WHO tweeted that there is a three-country outbreak of more than 200 cases of polio in the Horn of Africa. The top polio-hunters in the worldwide eradication effort, the ones who developed the “molecular clock” that allows the eradication campaign to trace new cases back to their source, work at… yup, the CDC.

The shutdown’s risks to health aren’t limited to what the CDC does. The Food and Drug Administration has sent home 45 percent of its staff. The ones who remain can do so because they work in programs that receive user fees, such as reviews of proposed new pharmaceuticals; those can continue provided the application for review was already submitted. (New reviews, according to the FDA’s statement today, are out of luck.) But food safety — always an under-funded mandate — is in real danger. HHS’s memo on shutdown staffing acknowledged this:

FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities. FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.

Translated, that means: No foodborne outbreak tracking; no inspection of food imports; no lab research; no publishing of guidance documents. (Food Safety News and Regulatory Focus have more.)

At the US Department of Agriculture — which attends to about 15 percent of the US food supply, including meat, compared to the FDA’s 85 percent — things are a bit better. Eighty-seven percent of its staff have been retained, including most of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. In its shutdown memo, the USDA says the FSIS falls under an Office of Management and Budget shutdown category described as “necessary to perform activities necessarily implied by law” (for wonks, that’s No. 3 of the five categories). Thus, they can continue to conduct meat, poultry and egg inspections on-site, that is, at plants and packing houses. However, the agency loses personnel as follows:

The following headquarters staffs performing the central program guidance, coordination, direction and planning functions described will be furloughed except as minimally required in direct support of Agency field operations:
•Inspection Operations (Office of Field Operations): Responsible for planning, coordinating and directing the Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products Inspection programs. Due to the large numbers of in plant inspection personnel who support excepted activities, most individuals in this area would be excepted and on duty.
•Public Health Science (Office of Public Health Science): The Public Health Science Program is responsible for planning, coordinating and directing all scientific guidance and support in chemistry, epidemiology, pathology, toxicology, nutrition, and parasitological. The Public Health Science Program also performs Agency risk assessments, directs the residue testing program, and also performs activities that address zoonotic diseases. With the exception of the laboratory function within Public Health Science, designations for these functions would be non-excepted, with limited individuals being identified as excepted and on duty. The majority of all Laboratory functions will be excepted.
•International Programs (Office of Field Operations, Office of Policy and Program Development, and Office of Investigation, Enforcement and Audit): The International Programs are responsible for ensuring that meat, poultry, and egg products from foreign countries are safe and wholesome. Program personnel also confer with foreign governments on issues involving imports and exports of meat, poultry and egg products and international food safety standards. A substantial number of these programs other than inspection of imports and certifying products for export would not be excepted.

I know other Wired colleagues are going to tackle the shutdown’s effect on the rest of the government science apparatus. There is no question, though, that public and global health and food safety are experiencing great impact. Better hope there are no major outbreaks brewing, and that no food producer or manufacturer — or food importer in a country with lower standards — decides that now is the time to try to slip something by government-funded detection and response. As of this morning, the protections we rely on are no longer there.



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Zinc affects male fertility

As important as zinc levels are to a woman’s fertility, it may even more vital to a man’s ability to get his partner pregnant. Considered one of the most important trace minerals to date for male fertility, increasing zinc levels in infertile men has been shown to boost sperm levels; improve the form, function and quality of male sperm and decrease male infertility.

When low levels of zinc are found in the male reproductive tract, a variety of disorders may present themselves.

  • Immature sperm: zinc is necessary in the creation of the outer membrane and tail of a sperm. Without it, the sperm can not mature to a stage that gives them the mobility and strength to make the long journey through the vagina, cervix and into the uterus for fertilization to take place.
  • Chromosomal changes: low levels of zinc may also be the reason chromosomal defects in the sperm which could cause a miscarriage even if fertilization and implantation do take place.

Zinc Missing from Today’s Diet Zinc is one of those minerals that are absolutely essential to fertility in both men and women; yet research shows that few people these days get the right amount. One of the reasons why zinc is in such short supply these days is the average diet due to poor soil health, which fails to provide this important mineral. Heating and cooking can also reduce the zinc in foods by 50%. So it is important to eat foods high in zinc in their raw form. The richest source of Zinc is Oysters, but some easy to find and eat sources are raw pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds (look for tahini -sesame seed butter, as well).

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Zinc Depletion Linked to Modern Lifestyle

It isn’t just a lack of zinc-filled foods that is sapping our bodies of this all-important mineral. Our modern lifestyle is too. Exposure to stress, pollution, alcohol and even cigarette smoke can also deplete our bodies of important zinc supplies.

Food Sources of Zinc

Making sure to eat enough foods high in zinc on a weekly basis is important. Make sure to try to eat as many zinc sources as you can raw since cooking has been shown to reduce zinc content by at least 50%. Here are the foods highest in zinc, listed in order of concentration:

  • Calf liver

  • Oysters

  • Beef

  • Lamb

  • Venison

  • Sesame seeds

  • Pumpkin seeds

  • Yogurt

  • Turkey

  • Green peas

  • Shrimp

Supplementation to the Rescue If you have tried to eat enough foods high in zinc, but still aren’t sure that you are getting enough, try taking a zinc supplement (our whole food prenatal multi-vitamin has the perfect amount of zinc in it). Take about 15 mg per day under normal circumstances. If your doctor suspects a serious zinc depletion or your also suffer with fibroids, you may need to take as much as 30 mg. to provide your body with the amount it needs. Just be sure to also take a multi-vitamin containing copper (especially if using a higher zinc dosage), since zinc can cause a copper deficiency in some people.

Adding more zinc to your system may not guarantee a pregnancy, but it sure can help to ensure that you have all of the minerals your body needs to produce strong eggs and sperm and is prepared as best as it can be for the job of building a baby ahead.

Iron and zinc interactions in humans

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, Washington, DC 20204, USA. pvw@cfsan.fda.gov


Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world.  Zinc deficiency is associated with poor growth and development and impaired immune response. Several Third World countries are taking measures to increase the dietary intake of iron and zinc with fortification of foods or dietary supplements. Several studies showed that high iron concentrations can negatively affect zinc absorption in adults when these trace minerals are given in solution. However, when iron and zinc are given in a meal, this effect is not observed.

Solomons postulated that the total amount of ionic species affects the absorption of zinc and that a total dose of >25 mg Fe (iron) may produce a measurable effect on zinc absorption.

This could occur if iron supplements are taken with a meal, and iron experts recommend that iron supplements be taken between meals. Recent studies using stable isotopes showed that fortifying foods with iron at current fortification amounts has no adverse effect on zinc absorption. There are 5 zinc salts listed as generally recommended as safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration for food fortification. From 1970 to 1987, the total amount of zinc salts used in food continually increased, with zinc oxide and zinc sulfate showing the largest increases. Twelve iron sources are listed as GRAS; elemental iron has become the source of choice because it is less expensive to produce and has fewer organoleptic problems. Use of ferrous fumarate is also increasing.

(J Nutr 1986;116:927-35)