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CDC Hit By Shutdown But Others Track Flu

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Not exactly reassuring, that tweet above from Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Frightening!" tweeted ABC News chief medical editor Richard Besser in response.

NPR reports that the government shutdown has left only about 4,000 of 13,000 CDC staffers at work. Though a skeleton emergency operation center remains active and can be ramped up if there's a major disease outbreak, the agency will not be monitoring flu activity across the country as it usually does.

That's the bad news, and flu is no mere nuisance: it hits tens of millions of Americans a year, killing an average of 24,000. And it's harder to be prepared if you don't have up-to-date intelligence on the virus and its many strains.

Now the good news: It's not flu season yet — it tends to peak in mid-winter. Flu vaccines are already available, and in more flavors than ever. And though CDC flu-tracking is considered the gold standard, there are other trackers at work:

• Athenahealth, Inc., a medical software company, has just announced that it will step in to track the flu by using its ability to monitor data on about 300,000 patients visiting primary care doctors around the country each week. It will issue weekly reports on flu patterns to help us watch for spikes.

In a blog post, Athenahealth core analytics director Iyue Sung writes that "Fortunately, we currently see no evidence of an early influenza outbreak." But adds that "recent history shows that the flu can begin spreading at any time, and once it does begin, it spreads very quickly." To follow the Athenahealth flu reports, keep an eye on this Athenahealth blog here.

(Keith Winstein, MIT)
(Keith Winstein, MIT)

Google Flu Trends took some flak last year (including here on CommonHealth) for erring on the high side and contributing to some January hype about the "possibly worst flu season ever." But it is committed to refining its methods and though it may be prone to overestimates, its technique of aggregating search results about flu symptoms is surely still useful in a canary-in-the-coal-mine way.

• Flu Near You is a crowdsourcing effort run by our HealthMap friends at Boston Children's Hospital in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund. You can contribute your own reports; browse its map to see how your region is looking, flu-wise; and you can also use it to see where vaccines are available near you.

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I signed up for Flu Near You last year and must say that it has won me over with its weekly queries about how I'm feeling. Yes, I know they're automatic, but they feel somehow kindly...I haven't answered any of them yet, because so far I've been feeling fine, but you can bet that if and when fever and body aches hit, I'll be happy to vent about them — and do a bit of public good at the same time.

•Mashable.com compiled several flu-tracking options this past January and lists them here.

Bottom line: We'll all be happy when the CDC's crack disease trackers are getting paid again, but in the meanwhile, it may be comforting to know there are other options.

This program aired on October 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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