Julie Gerberding was still a deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2001 when someone started mailing anthrax spores to newsrooms and politicians' offices around the country. A telegenic personality who connected easily with journalists, Gerberding quickly became the public face of the CDC--a rare cool head among a parade of increasingly confused health bureaucrats. The fumbling she witnessed behind the scenes convinced her that the CDC's troubles extended beyond the need for better communications. She made her case to Tommy Thompson, then Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), and within a year was appointed director of the agency--the first woman to hold that job--with a mandate to radically reshape the CDC.
Five years later, Gerberding finds herself in the public eye once again, but this time she's under attack. The massive reorganization she ordered--combined with painful budget cuts in key divisions--seems to be tearing the agency apart. Six directors of the CDC's eight primary scientific centers have left. Researchers are sniping at one another in public and on the Internet. The agency has been targeted by three different congressional probes. And a blistering report, leaked last week, by an outside consultant who studied the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina found chaos and mismanagement at the very top.
Nobody is claiming that the CDC has become another governmental basket case like FEMA--at least not yet. Indeed, the speed with which this past summer's outbreak of lethal food poisoning was traced to spinach tainted by runoff from a particular herd of cows in California is testimony to the CDC's continuing expertise. But the bad publicity comes at the worst possible time for the agency and its director. Congress is wrapping up its final budget for 2007, and the Administration is starting to draw up a preliminary budget for 2008. If lawmakers believe that Gerberding is floundering, her institution's budget will suffer.
That's the last thing the U.S. needs. As the nation's premier guardian of public health, the CDC is responsible for researching, tracking and counteracting newly emerging infectious diseases like West Nile and SARS. Doctors rely on it to develop unbiased recommendations on a wide range of medical issues from when to vaccinate children to how best to battle obesity. It also directs funds to individual state and local public agencies to shore up their own community health efforts.
Ironically, it is increased CDC funding mandated by Congress for high-profile threats like bioterrorism and flu pandemics that has drained money from areas of public health that may actually be more pressing. Among the hardest-hit programs: AIDS prevention (down 19%), tuberculosis control (down 16%) and preventive-health block grants for outbreaks of West Nile disease and other unexpected events (down 17%).