Anthrax response leader to head CDC

AIDS expert became chief spokeswoman after agency came under fire

July 03, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention retools to meet the threat of bioterrorism, a senior manager who helped shape the nation's response to last year's anthrax scare has been tapped by President Bush to lead the agency, an administration official said yesterday.

The appointment of Dr. Julie L. Gerberding is to be announced today by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. Gerberding will become the first woman to lead the Atlanta-based federal agency, which is responsible for protecting Americans against infectious diseases and other health hazards.

Public health officials and academics applauded the expected nomination, saying that Gerberding, 46, combines talent as an infectious-disease physician specializing in AIDS research with leadership and communication skills that she demonstrated during the anthrax attacks.

"We think this is an outstanding decision," said Thomas V. Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. "She was fantastic under fire in the fall."

After the CDC came under attack last fall for what critics called its slow and muddled response to the fatal anthrax outbreaks, Gerberding was recruited to be the agency's chief spokeswoman. She gained recognition for her articulate and unflappable public appearances.

"She performed very ably in sorting out some of the issues," said Dr. Richard Levinson, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association. "I think she will make a very good director."

Gerberding, the CDC's acting deputy director for science and public health, came to the agency in 1998 from the University of California at San Francisco, where she pioneered a project to prevent and control HIV infection in health care workers.

Paul A. Volberding, a longtime associate and friend who is vice chairman of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, said Gerberding's instincts and know-how in dealing with such emotionally charged diseases as AIDS "have a lot of resonance with what's going on today" as the nation deals with the threat of bioterrorism.

Gerberding has served on a four-member team in charge of the CDC since Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan stepped down as director in March, saying he wanted to move on after more than three years in the job.

Her name was forwarded to the White House last week by Thompson, along with that of Dr. Robert Redfield, a longtime AIDS vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland.

Several public health organizations lobbied vigorously for Gerberding's appointment. They argued that her experience in dealing with the anthrax attacks would be valuable in helping the agency prepare for another potential episode and in working with other arms of the government involved with bioterrorism.

Since the fall, when it was accused by Congress and others of initially failing to inform the public of the danger of anthrax-tainted mail, the CDC has endured what one public health specialist called "a very serious morale problem" as well as a lack of public confidence.

Now, it is trying to regain its footing and to prepare for possible attacks on Americans from anthrax or other deadly agents such as smallpox.

In its role as the lead federal agency charged with protecting public health and safety, the CDC, one of 11 agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services, stores and controls the nation's stockpile of smallpox vaccine.

Beyond that, it will need to lead 3,000 local public health departments in devising a plan for containing an outbreak or epidemic and administering the vaccine, said Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Each local health department has to have a plan of action," Sommer said. "That will not happen unless the CDC actually leads the charge and brings people through that kind of experience."

The CDC faces another challenge: It must meld its work for the first time with national security agencies, such as the CIA, the FBI and the proposed Homeland Security Department, as well as possibly turning over some of its duties to the new Cabinet agency.

Some doctors worried that Gerberding would not accept the job because of uncertainty over which CDC functions might be shifted to the new department. And in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Gerberding acknowledged the difficulties in blending the CDC's scientific work with that of the government's counterterrorism bureaucracy.

The CDC maintains that because the same scientists who work on AIDS and the West Nile virus also work on anthrax and smallpox, it would create problems if some specialists were moved to Homeland Security to deal exclusively with bioterrorism.

With enormous challenges ahead, the new CDC director needs to be "particularly special and forceful with a clear sense of mission and direction, someone who can step up to the plate and make things happen," Sommer said. "I think this is the right person."

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