CDC's preparedness chief named acting director

Jan 27, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – Richard E. Besser, MD, who formerly directed terrorism preparedness and emergency response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was named last week as the agency's acting director.

Besser replaces Julie L. Gerberding, MD, MPH, who had led the agency since July 2002 and stepped down as President Barack Obama took office last week.

Besser took the helm of the agency Jan 22, according to a brief notice on the CDC Web site. He had been director of the CDC Coordinatng Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response since August 29, 2005, according to Glen Nowak, CDC media relations director.

"He started 2 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit," Nowak said.

Nowak said Besser was appointed acting CDC director by Charles Johnson, acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Former Sen. Tom Daschle has been nominated as HHS secretary but has not yet been confirmed.

A pediatrician by training, Besser, 49, started his CDC career in the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) in 1991, working on foodborne diseases, Nowak said.

Besser served as an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the pediatrics residency program at the University of California, San Diego, from 1993 to 1998, according to the 2000 EIS directory.

He later returned to the CDC and served as epidemiology section chief in the Respiratory Diseases Branch, acting chief of the Meningitis and Special Pathogens Branch in the National Center for Infectious Diseases, and as medical director of a CDC campaign to promote appropriate antibiotic use in the community.

He received a bachelor's degree in economics at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a residency and chief residency in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, the CDC said.

Besser has authored and co-authored more than 100 presentations, abstracts, book chapters, editorials, and other publications and has received many awards for his work in public health and his volunteer service, according to the CDC.

Gerberding had led the CDC since Jul 3, 2002, when she was appointed by then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. Previously she had served as part of a four-member CDC interim leadership team, which had functioned for about 3 months following the resignation of former CDC Director Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan in March 2002.

Gerberding's CDC leadership began less than a year after the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001 put bioterrorism high on the CDC's agenda. Some major events during her tenure included increased federal spending for state and local public health preparedness, the campaign to vaccinate many frontline health workers against smallpox in 2003, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and monkeypox outbreaks of the same year, a major CDC reorganization launched in 2004, and a growing focus on pandemic influenza preparedness in response to the spread of H5N1 avian influenza starting in 2004.

See also:

May 14, 2004, CIDRAP News story on CDC reorganization
http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/bt/bioprep/news/may1404cdc.html

Jul 3, 2002, CIDRAP News story on appointment of Julie Gerberding
http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/bt/bioprep/news/gerberding.html

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