WASHINGTON, D.C. — It Is in times of crisis when the world looks to those equipped with the expertise to make the big decisions, as is happening now in response to the current Ebola crisis in Africa. One such public figure is the director of the Center for Disease Control, Tom Frieden. This outbreak is hardly Frieden’s first foray into handling medical crises, and his record of success has garnered him widespread respect.
Before being named the director of the CDC in 2009, Frieden got his M.D. and Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University before beginning work for the CDC as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer. During his time with EIS, Frieden’s work was largely domestically oriented.
In the early 1990s, Frieden worked in New York City to contain the outbreak of a strain of drug-resistant tuberculosis, and with a multi-year approach he was successful. After his work with EIS, the World Health Organization tapped him for a similar mission to India, where he spent five years developing a public health system that ended up saving thousands of lives and establishing a widely respected name for Frieden back in the United States.
Upon returning to New York, mayor Michael Bloomberg requested that Frieden lead the effort to improve health by heading a campaign to minimize public consumption of sugar and trans-fats as well as smoking, an effort that resulted in drastic improvements for the health of New York City.
Soon after U.S. President Barack Obama entered office, he put Frieden in charge of the CDC, where he was faced with a new slew of challenges, including the H1N1 virus. Despite the public flak he received for it, he made the decision to have vaccines shipped to the infected as they were produced, emphasizing that helping people immediately was better than waiting to send out a larger batch when it might be too late.
Frieden went on to work on a national anti-tobacco campaign that was estimated to save the lives of 100,000 people and prevented children from starting to use tobacco.
In terms of his approach to the broader health concerns facing the world, the CDC developed a list of five of the most urgent health concerns that the CDC, with the collaboration of other organizations, is equipped to handle effectively in 2014. Frieden has plans for the most efficient ways to approach these health priorities.
Some of the priorities on the CDC’s agenda are important to global health, including improving global health security and eradicating polio around the world. As for the former, Frieden explains that in response to the fact that only one in five countries is able to detect, prevent and treat health crises, the technologies and resources available to the CDC are vital to turning things around. Training doctors and nurses, as well as improving surveillance in labs and of outbreaks, are all part of Frieden’s approach to making impoverished countries safer and healthier.
In terms of polio, Frieden is determined to eliminate it in areas like Nigeria, one of the few countries where polio has yet to be stamped out. Failure is not an option in his eyes, as he notes the strong possibility that increased cases of polio would result in 200,000 paralyzed children within the decade.
In the midst of approaching these urgent health concerns, the director has also been faced with a new crisis, receiving praise along the way for his calm and swift decision making in his approach to the Ebola outbreak that has claimed thousands of lives. Alfred Sommer, the man who recruited Frieden for the New York health department position in the 1990’s, believes in Frieden’s capability, explaining, “He’s almost ideally situated by temperament and experience to be in a leadership role in this particular outbreak.”
As the outbreak has worsened and become more difficult to handle, Frieden has emphasized the threat of Ebola in the currently affected African regions, as well as the very real threat it poses to the rest of the world. He explains, “We’re going to protect Americans best by stopping it at the source in Africa. It’s going to be a long, hard fight. It’s not going to be easy. But we have the tools, and we have to use them.”
Frieden is taking a practical and procedural approach to addressing the crisis, working to minimize panic and be as effective as possible in keeping people safe. As the Ebola crisis continues and when inevitable future global health crises occur in the world, Frieden’s drive and commitment leave him well equipped to make a difference.
– Maggie Wagner