How U.S. Disease Unit <br>Lost Its Core Mission <br>Amid Confusions of Policy
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
With flu raging through 46 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking center stage, advising the public and physicians. But the agency increasingly isn’t up to its task. Until last year, polls showed the CDC to be the most respected federal agency. But then it bungled its response to Ebola. That was a wake-up call, because the CDC has been fumbling its most important jobs for several years. The agency has a severe case of mission confusion.
Domestic preparedness: After the 9/11 attacks, Congress instructed the CDC to launch a State and Local Preparedness program and build a Strategic National Stockpile to prepare for bioterrorism or a disease outbreak. But the CDC has failed on both fronts, leaving us woefully unprepared, according to the Associated Press. “A mediocre outbreak” could overwhelm the system, said Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University. When Ebola struck, the stockpile was already out of essential gear like waterproof gowns: The CDC had used up the supplies during the 2009 swine-flu threat, yet didn’t even order more until October 2014, with Ebola in full swing. Since 2007, the CDC has cut domestic preparedness every year, reallocating the money to “urgent” causes like improving access to farmer’s markets.
Lab safety: The CDC had so many potentially lethal mishaps last year that outside scientists are now urging Congress to bar most of the 1,500 CDC labs from handling deadly bugs. The agency mislabeled live anthrax and sent it to other labs, mixed up inactivated bird-flu specimens and lethal ones and exposed a scientist to incorrectly labeled Ebola specimens. Sounds like the Centers for Disease Mix-Ups and Confusion.
Deadly inaction on Legionella: The CDC has chosen to ignore Legionnaire’s Disease, rather than control or prevent it. It’s a type of pneumonia you can only get from water in contaminated pipes. Europeans routinely test their pipes for the bug, which is easily eradicated. The CDC, in contrast, opposes testing until tragedy strikes, like the 2012 outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA that killed five. As a result, the problem has more than quadrupled in the last decade. Amazingly, the CDC doesn’t even have current data on Legionnaire’s Disease, though Paul Edelstein of the University of Pennsylvania estimates that it infects more Americans each year than HIV.
Hospital superbugs: C. diff (Clostridium Difficile) is raging through US hospitals. The CDC hopes to reduce it by 33 percent over five years — a pathetically timid goal. The Mayo Clinic reduced C. diff by 85 percent in a pilot project just by cleaning patients’ surroundings once a day with bleach wipes.
The agency has also allowed the spread of a deadly germ, CRE (Carbapenem-resistant bacteria). The CDC chief, Dr. Thomas Frieden, calls it “nightmare bacteria” and warns that it could make going to the hospital too dangerous. Yet CRE was discovered in North Carolina in 1999, and soon jumped to the New York area. But the agency dawdled, and now the germ is in 43 states. It’s deadly. Patients who get CRE bloodstream infections face a 50 percent risk of dying. Cases of CRE rose fivefold in some regions from 2008 to 2012. It wasn’t ’til 2013 that Frieden belatedly called for “urgent action.” Yet the CDC hasn’t done much since. In contrast, when CRE invaded Israel’s hospitals in 2006, public-health authorities launched a military-style campaign of reporting, cleaning, and testing that reduced cases by 70% in one year.
Mission confusion: Nothing proves the CDC’s mission confusion more than its 2015 budget request. It sought just $85 million to fight hospital infections (which sicken 2 million Americans a year) but requested twice as much ($161 million) to fight polio, a disease that’s nearly eradicated and afflicted only 350 people (all overseas) last year. The CDC’s budgeteers slashed $85 million from domestic preparedness, adding instead $80 million for grants to community organizations for “healthy living” — funds easily misused for political activism. Out went $53 million for cancer screening and prevention, in went $10 million to research gun violence (a request Congress denied).
Dr. Frieden, who battled big sodas as New York City’s health commissioner, has embraced the Nanny State. But Americans can decide what to eat. What they need from the agency is public safety and preparedness — precisely the mission the CDC is neglecting.