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Shutdown prevents doctors from tracking the flu

Published On: Oct 16 2013 08:41:02 PM CDT

MADISON, Wis. -

Oct. 1 marked the official beginning of flu season. Normally, the Center for Disease Control would be updating its Flu View webpage and tracking the disease that affects thousands each year.

But due to the government shutdown, the CDC has been unable to track and report flu data it receives from nearly 3,000 sentinel sites nationwide.

One of those sites is the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Craig Roberts, a Health Services epidemiologist, works to track the flu based on the number of students coming in with flu symptoms.

He said the data collected by the CDC is used to track and forecast the flu, allowing doctors and health care providers to get ahead of the wintertime bug.

"It's really the CDC's job to take all this data from across the country and synthesize it into a manner that makes sense for epidemiologists, clinicians and health departments to take action," Roberts said.

The data collected tracks national and regional trends, but also helps catch deadly new strains of the influenza virus, like the 2007 bird flu or the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.

Doctors have also been looking for new ways to follow the flu outside the CDC reports, like the UW's Dr. Ajay Sethi, who developed the Outsmartflu app.

The app allows UW students to report how they're feeling and get feedback about their symptoms. Sethi plans to take the data and compare it to CDC measures to find out how accurate the app really is.

He said it could be a more effective way to track the flu and reach people because the app makes care immediately accessible.

"It's going to be on somebody's mobile phone so we're going to have greater access to users," Sethi said. "We'll analyze [the data], basically just counts and calculate the number of people reporting flu-like symptoms."

Sethi's app is only a few weeks old and he's hoping students stick to using it during the course of the flu season. It's a point that Roberts said is hard to predict, even with the help of the CDC.

"Nobody really knows," Roberts said.

So far, there have been no cases of the flu in Dane County, but Roberts recommends people get immunized before winter, when flu season is in full swing.

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