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Last Updated

07 Dec 2002

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 3, 2002.

Infectious disease expert to lead CDC

By M.A.J. McKENNA, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Dr. Julie Gerberding, who trained in the early AIDS epidemic 20 years ago and helped lead the response to last fall's anthrax attacks, will be named director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday.

Bush administration officials confirmed Tuesday that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson will make the announcement to CDC staff in Atlanta at 1 p.m.

Gerberding, a 46-year-old specialist in infectious diseases, becomes the CDC's first female director.

"It's a great choice," said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, who resigned as CDC director March 31 and is now executive vice president for health affairs at Emory University. "Amongst the many very talented people at the CDC, she is a real star: smart, hard-working, thoughtful, compassionate and well-respected."

Gerberding's selection was hailed Tuesday by powerful Atlantans who have been the CDC's unofficial lobbyists before Congress.

"The concern we have had is that somebody would come in from the outside and have to learn from the ground up," said Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot and co-founder of Friends of the CDC. "She has all of that knowledge. She has great communication skills. She has good organizational skills. And she has demonstrated in the meetings I have had with her that she is in control."

Until last fall, Gerberding was chief of the CDC's division of health care quality promotion, a position for which she was recruited in 1998 from the University of California at San Francisco. Last September, she agreed to serve several months as acting deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, the historic heart of the CDC and the home of its bioterrorism programs.

While she was in that temporary post, anthrax-tainted letters began arriving at news organizations and in Congress, triggering the largest investigative effort launched by the CDC. Five people ultimately died from exposure to anthrax.

Gerberding became one of several senior managers who represented the CDC to Congress and the public, a job that included conducting daily teleconferences for reporters that were Webcast internationally. She quickly emerged as a polished spokeswoman, able to remain courteous, clear and unruffled in the face of pointed criticism of the agency by Congress and widespread concern among the public.

During the crisis, Gerberding frequently briefed the senior staff of Health and Human Services.

"[Secretary Thompson] was very impressed with her," said Dr. William Roper, dean of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, who was CDC director from 1990 to 1993 and is a public health adviser to the Bush administration. "One of the most important qualifications for being an agency head, beyond the substantial technical requirements, is that the person have the secretary's confidence, and I think very firmly she does."

After Koplan's departure three months ago, Thompson selected Gerberding to be part of a four-person interim management team. She became acting deputy director for science, effectively the No. 2 post in the agency behind acting director Dr. David Fleming, and quickly began to be mentioned as a contender for the top job.

"To have a director of the CDC whose specialty is infectious diseases is extremely important at this particular point," said Dr. Gail Cassell of Eli Lilly & Co., who serves on a panel of advisers to the CDC director and knew Gerberding before she came to the agency. "One of the most critical needs will be for Julie to take a critical assessment of the CDC and its programs, to ensure it is using its new resources to properly balance bioterrorism preparedness and its day-to-day mission."

Unlike some CDC directors -- there have been 13 since the agency was founded in 1946 -- Gerberding's experience does not lie in the public health system, but in academic medicine and direct patient care.

She is a native of South Dakota who studied at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, earning a bachelor's degree in 1977 and a medical degree in 1981. From 1981 to 1988, she was an intern, resident and postgraduate fellow at UCSF, where she later joined the faculty. She earned a master's degree in public health at UC-Berkeley in 1990.

When Gerberding arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1981, the AIDS epidemic was beginning. San Francisco General Hospital, the training ground for UCSF, became the place where many of the early, desperately sick patients were treated.

"It is easy to forget now that there was the potential for real public panic about HIV," said Dr. Paul Volberding, director of UCSF's Center for AIDS Research, who was a junior faculty member in the early 1980s and went on to collaborate with Gerberding on research.

"We knew little about the disease," he said. "We did know that some health care workers were getting infected from needle-stick injuries. Julie approached that with real scientific rigor, but also with calmness and dedication and energy -- all the qualities we would expect the CDC's director to model in frightening situations like bioterrorism."

Gerberding is credited with being one of the first researchers to address the potential risks of HIV to health care workers, a position that -- as later in the anthrax attacks -- placed her in a harsh public spotlight at a time of rapidly changing scientific knowledge and enormous public concern.

"She quickly became a leading authority in establishing that the risk of HIV infection was low among health care workers and that the risk could be further reduced" by using post-exposure drugs, said Dr. David Bangsberg, who succeeded her as director of a treatment and research unit she founded that focuses on urban poor people infected with HIV.

Gerberding's research into the work-related risks of health professionals brought her to the CDC's attention. The branch she was brought here to head was called the hospital infections program.

She broadened its focus to include hospitals' inadvertent contributions to the development of drug-resistant bacteria, as well as the potential that computerizing data on patients holds for reducing medical errors -- an interest she shares with her husband, David Rose, an information technology specialist who also came from San Francisco General.