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Obama Taps New York City's Health Chief to Lead CDC

President Barack Obama today named New York City’s health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden, as the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—a post that has been vacant since the departure of former director Julie Gerberding in January.

A graduate of Columbia University’s medical school and its Mailman School of Public Health, Frieden worked for the CDC for a dozen years, first on tuberculosis control in New York and later on loan to the World Health Organization in India, focusing on TB control there.

During his 7 years as New York’s health commissioner, Frieden has earned a reputation as an innovative advocate of stern public health initiatives, including tobacco control, mandatory HIV testing, reducing artificial trans fats in restaurant meals, restrictions on salt content, and his recent call, in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, for a steep excise tax on sugared sodas. President Obama called Frieden “an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies” who also “has been at the forefront in the fight against heart disease, cancer, and obesity.”

Frieden’s appointment comes at a time when CDC is still recovering from years of controversy related to political pressures and a major reorganization ordered by Gerberding. In the past month, the Atlanta-based agency has also been under tremendous pressure in dealing with the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak.

Although Frieden had been on the short list of potential CDC directors since January, a dark-horse competitor in recent weeks was the agency’s acting director, Richard Besser, who has been praised for his calm handling of the flu outbreak. When Frieden takes office in June, Besser will return to his former position as head of CDC’s terrorism preparedness and emergency response office. On Friday, Besser described Frieden as “a consummate innovator” in public health.