Choice of NYC's Frieden to lead CDC wins praise

May 15, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – President Barack Obama's appointment of New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) drew enthusiastic applause today from public health organizations and disease experts.

Frieden, a tuberculosis expert, is credited with achievements as varied as helping improve tuberculosis control in India, driving trans-fats out of New York City restaurants, and reducing smoking in that city. He has headed the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOH) since 2002.

Dr. Richard Besser, who has served as acting CDC director since early in the Obama administration, will continue in his regular role as head of the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, the White House announced. Frieden will assume the CDC post in early June.

In a news release today, Obama said, "Dr. Frieden is an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies, and has been at the forefront of the fight against heart disease, cancer and obesity, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, and in the establishment of electronic health records. Dr. Frieden has been a leader in the fight for health care reform, and his experiences confronting public health challenges in our country and abroad will be essential in this new role."

Public health leaders praised Frieden as an outstanding appointee who will base his policies on science and not shrink from difficult issues.

"During his tenure as New York City's health commissioner, Frieden has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to protecting the public's health through his tireless work on issues ranging from implementing a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars to increasing HIV testing rates," said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, in a statement. "He has not backed away from the tough public health challenges and in doing so has helped the people he served lead healthier, longer lives."

Frieden is an Oberlin College graduate who earned medical and public health degrees at Columbia University, where he also trained in internal medicine before going to Yale University to study infectious diseases, according to information from the NYCDOH.

He joined the NYCDOH in 1990 while working as a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer on a wide range of issues. He led the city's Bureau of Tuberculosis Control and served as assistant commissioner from 1992 to 1996, during which cases of multidrug-resistant TB in the city dropped by 80%, according to the NYCDOH.

Frieden subsequently worked in India for 5 years, helping with the nation's TB control program, which has treated more than 8 milloin patients and saved more than a million lives, the NYCDOH said.

Frieden has been credited with numerous initiatives in his time as health commissioner. New York was the nation's first city "to eliminate trans-fats from restaurants, rigorously monitor the diabetes epidemic, and reqeuire certain restaurants to post calorie information prominently," the health department said.

The White House said Frieden has led efforts that have reduced the number of smokers in New York by 350,000, increased cancer screening, reduced AIDS deaths by 40%, and implemented the largest community electronic health records project in the nation. "Dr. Frieden and his team have responded effectively to several urgent health problems, including cases of anthrax, plague, and, most recently, H1N1 influenza," the statement said.

Dr. Anne Gershon, president of the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), said in an IDSA statement that she has been "incredibly impressed with Dr. Frieden's response to the recent influenza A H1N1 outbreak and previous outbreaks of other diseases." Gershon is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Columbia University in New York.

In an interview, Gershon said Frieden has taken a very organized approach to the novel H1N1 situation, holding teleconferences with infectious disease physicians to keep them abreast of events.

"In a situatoin like this it would be very easy to just panic and close schools and do things that are not necessarily indicated, and he's been able to control that," Gershon said. "I think he's wonderful in being able to delegate responsibility to highly competent people so he knows the job is being done well."

Frieden has shown an ability to get people from diverse groups to work together well, Gershon added.

Giving an example of his problem-solving skills, Gershon said the city at one point had a problem with cases of neonatal herpes that were related to circumcisions. "He cleared that up and did it in a very nice way, without having people getting angry at each other. . . . It was a serious issue, and it stopped. The people he delegated to deal with this, day to day, were terrific. I think that tells you something about him."

Frieden won praise from other infectious disease experts as well.

In the IDSA statement, Roy Gulick, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, predicted that Frieden would forcefully advocate using evidence-based practices in the battle against HIV-AIDS. In New York he has emphasized prevention by promoting needle exchange and condom use and has worked hard to promote routine HIV testing, Gulick said.

Richard P. Wenzel, MD, a former IDSA president, told CIDRAP News, "This individual is a proven achiever with high standards and appropriate, epidemiologically based priorities. He is an excellent choice." Wenzel is chair of internal medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit public health policy group in Washington, DC, also applauded Frieden's appointment.

"Dr. Frieden is a bold leader who has the courage to shake up the status quo if science and evidence show that change needs to happen," said Jeff Levi, PhD, TFAH executive director, in a statement. "He doesn't shy away from the tough problems. His innovative strategies have led to real reductions in smoking rates, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and food-borne illness in New York City.

"During the campaign, President Obama made a commitment to make policy decisions based on the integrity of science. With this appointment, the President has taken an important step to fulfill this promise," Levi said.

See also:

May 15 White House press release

May 15 APHA statement

Frieden biography from NYCDOH

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