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How Healthy? A Public Health Official's Legacy

Julie Gerberding (Image via Wikipedia)

Another Bushie is on her way out: Julie Gerberding has resigned as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a post she’s held for more than 6 years. She’ll be replaced temporarily by CDC’s Chief Operating Officer Bill Gimson, until President-elect Barack Obama appoints a permanent chief, expected soon.

Gerberding was a tumultuous figure during a tumultuous time at CDC. She led the $8.8 billion public health agency through rocky seas, helping to carve out a new role in detecting and responding to bioterror attacks following 11 September and the anthrax mail attacks; coordinating with other countries to stem SARS, the fast-spreading and obscure virus that hit China; conducting research into avian flu and managing public fears about an outbreak; and promoting disease prevention, such as for obesity. But Gerberding also had to beat back a number of vocal critics upset by her major restructuring of the agency, known as the Futures Initiative.

In an unusual move, five former CDC directors sent Gerberding a letter in December 2005 expressing “great concern” about morale at the agency and losses of key scientific staff. Ten months later in an interview with Science, she defended her actions and argued that “we have to grow new science at CDC” while keeping up with top-notch surveillance and epidemiology.

“Her tenure’s been challenging in many ways,” says James LeDuc, who spent 14 years at CDC before leaving at the end of 2006 to join the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. But those who know the agencies say that things have settled down a bit at CDC in the last couple years. And, say LeDuc and others, Gerberding excelled at communicating with the public and handling CDC’s role in an ever-brighter spotlight. “For those of us out in the field, far too often people from high at CDC have made statements that meant nothing [to us]. Julie really tried to connect CDC with the average person,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a longtime supporter of Gerberding (and, he hastens to note, of Barack Obama). He’s known her since their work together on AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Gerberding’s work to explore the health implications for climate change with public outreach as well as new science at CDC are another example of this effort. (Not that the White House always allowed her to  deliver that message in her congressional testimony.)   Here is a decent recap of her time at CDC, though it blames her, perhaps unfairly, for the trouble with the testimony.

Osterholm believes Gerberding’s legacy will be regarded favorably, especially as time passes. “What Julie tried to accomplish was to bring [CDC] into the modern world,” he says—not an easy task.