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CDC Furloughs Hamper Salmonella Outbreak Investigation

Atlanta — The federal shutdown has set back efforts to combat a multistate outbreak of salmonella, which has sickened nearly 300 people in 17 states.

For a week, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had only a skeleton staff tracking and analyzing the outbreak and more than 30 other clusters of food-related illness. This week, it has recalled some workers.

Some food-safety advocates say they fear the staffing lapse will prolong the battle against an especially virulent outbreak of salmonella. The illness, which has been linked to chicken from a California producer, involves seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg.

Several strains are resistant to treatment, and 42 percent of the victims have been hospitalized. That’s double the customary rate of hospitalizations, officials said.

“You can’t just send your public health staff home,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “There are real public health consequences.”

CDC officials say the shutdown has not slowed efforts to identify the particular products that are tainted, a task it shares with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They said there has been some delay, which they’ll soon overcome, in monitoring the spread of the disease.

But that logic doesn’t comfort DeWaal. “Every day of delay, that food can remain on the market.”

The greatest concentration of cases has occurred on the West Coast.

On Monday, the USDA issued a public health alert saying that the outbreak has been linked to three Foster Farms facilities in California.

The USDA, which does much of the on-the-ground detective work, has been investigating this outbreak since July. Most of that agency’s front-line inspectors and lab staff were not furloughed, said spokesman Aaron Lavelle.

However, there has been no recall of Foster Farms chicken because CDC and USDA scientists have not yet pinpointed the products that caused the outbreak.

The CDC plays a central role in gathering information from states, tracking the spread and severity of illness and determining the makeup of the pathogen and the most effective treatment.

On Oct. 1, when the partial government shutdown began, the CDC furloughed 20 of the 30 people who handle surveillance of food-borne illnesses. As new cases of salmonella were diagnosed, states sent information to the CDC, but there weren’t enough analysts to process the information and look for patterns.

“We knew we had a backlog,” said Dr. Christopher Braden, director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases. “We knew we had to bring people in.” In particular, he said, the agency was hamstrung in its efforts to determine which strains were resistant to multiple antibiotics, he said. That work is critical to treating those who get sick, helping identify the drugs that are effective.

On Tuesday, after six days with the reduced staff, the CDC leadership decided to bring back 10 of the furloughed workers, designating them as vital for public health and safety.

“We’re looking now to see if there’s anything we missed,” Braden said.

He expects the staff to catch up on analyzing new cases within days. But managing a separate monitoring system, which tracks resistance to antibiotics, will remain challenging during the shutdown, he said.

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Tony Corbo, a senior policy analyst with Food & Water Watch, said he thinks the CDC furloughs slowed efforts to find the source of the illness. CDC’s collection of data from the states can provide valuable information on what people had eaten before becoming sick, which can provide valuable clues to identifying the products at fault, he said.

He also believes the federal government has been slow to take action against Foster Farms, which he said was linked to a separate outbreak less than a year ago.

“You still have product by this company still going out,” he said. “Products have still not been recalled.” Beyond that, he said lost days can mean a great deal when people are being hospitalized.

“You have people getting ill,” he said. “You want the investigation to keep on going.”

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©2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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