CDC Gets First Female Director

A reveler from the Order of Incas tosses beads to the crowds gathered along Royal Street in downtown Mobile, Ala., Friday, Feb. 9, 2007. The pre-Lenten blowout continues along the Gulf Coast, culminating in Mardi Gras celebrations Feb 20.
AP/Press-Register, G.M. Andrews
A scientist who helped pioneer AIDS protection for hospital workers and went on to battle anthrax has been chosen to head the nation's top public health agency, administration officials said Tuesday.

Dr. Julie Gerberding will become the first female director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson will appoint her on Wednesday at a ceremony at the CDC's Atlanta headquarters, said administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Gerberding is an infectious-disease specialist who became one of CDC's most quoted investigators during last fall's anthrax attacks.

Numerous health organizations had lobbied Thompson and the White House to appoint her to lead CDC, saying her anthrax experience would prove crucial as the agency prepares against another bioterrorism strike.

"She's somebody who has been able to withstand the pressure and take the heat and always use good science-based judgment to make decisions," said Dr. James Curran of Emory University, the CDC's former AIDS chief, who has known Gerberding for over a decade.

But she faces some immediate challenges: ensuring the CDC is ready should bioterrorism strike again even as it fights everyday diseases — and learning to work with the CIA, FBI and proposed Homeland Security Department, a function new to CDC's doctors.

Gerberding had no comment Tuesday on the new post. But in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, she acknowledged that blending CDC's scientific work into the new terrorism-defense bureaucracy will take effort.

Indeed, the very scientists at CDC who understand bioterrorism best also are its experts on West Nile virus and other more everyday threats to people's health. The CDC has explained to Washington officials that infectious disease is infectious disease whether it's natural or weaponized, and that its experts can't be separated to anti-terrorism work only.

"We feel very optimistic our perspective is being heard," Gerberding said Monday. "The bottom line is we support this and we're going to make it work."

Gerberding, 46, had been the CDC's acting deputy director for science, one of a four-member team in charge of the agency while the Bush administration hunted a new director. Dr. Jeffrey Koplan stepped down as CDC director on March 31, saying it was time to move on after more than three years in the job.

The CDC investigates outbreaks of infectious diseases and works to prevent other illnesses. But members of Congress had strongly criticized CDC for acting too slowly when anthrax struck and not communicating the danger clearly enough.

Once the CDC began explaining anthrax risks, Gerberding quickly became a chief spokesman, winning attention in Washington and the confidence of health secretary Thompson. That left health officials and other CDC watchers hoping Gerberding's appointment means the agency will be more open with the public the next time crisis strikes.

"If something happens, the world is going to want to know how the CDC is reacting to it," said Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, a longtime CDC booster who recently gave the agency $3.9 million to equip a 24-hour emergency response hub.

Gerberding began her career at the University of California, San Francisco, where she won acclaim for developing one of the first programs to give health workers stuck with HIV-tainted needles medication to prevent infection, said Tom Coates, the university's AIDS research director.

The CDC recruited her in 1998 to run its own program fighting hospital-spread infections, antibiotic resistance and medical errors. Then anthrax struck.

Gerberding "gained a lot of credibility" during the anthrax investigation, said Dr. Gail Cassell of Eli Lilly & Co., a bioterrorism adviser to the government who had lobbied the White House to appoint her.

But Cassell said one of Gerberding's first steps should be "a really critical analysis of CDC and its programs," to ensure the agency is using new resources to properly prepare for bioterrorism.