Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Understanding the Role of U.S. Government Agency in Protecting the Public Health


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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a U.S. government health agency headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, whose primary function is to protect the public’s health and ensure control of infections.

The CDC falls under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and, in addition to infectious diseases, performs much research on such non-infectious conditions such as obesity, smoking, and diabetes.

A Brief History of the CDC

In 1946, the CDC (then known as the Communicable Diseases Center) was founded in direct response to international concerns about malaria control, and a time when scientists were just beginning to see resistance developing to the available anti-malarial drugs. It was decided to base the organization in Atlanta, an area of the U.S. in which malaria was considered to be endemic.

After several incarnations, the agency was renamed the Centers for Disease Control in 1980, after which the U.S. Congress adjoined the words "and Prevention" in late-1992.

Today, the CDC employs over 15,000 doctors, researchers, administrators, statisticians and technicians to support its operations in Atlanta, as well as offices and employees in 54 countries around the world. The CDC is also known to have one of only 57 Biosafety Level 4 laboratories in the world, which are able to house potentially fatal contagions that have no known treatment or vaccine.

Dr. Thomas R. Friedan was appointed the 16th director of CDC by President Barack Obama on May 15, 2009.

The CDC and AIDS Epidemic

In 1981, the CDC reported on five cases of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) which had occurred among homosexual men in Los Angeles and was among the first to question whether these cases were somehow the result of an acquired immune deficiency. Increasing incidences of PCP, Kaposi sarcoma and other opportunistic infections (OIs) led the CDC to establish a Task Force to conduct epidemiological surveillance of disease syndrome that was then known as GRID (or gay-related immune deficiency) and was later renamed HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

To track the scale of the outbreak, the CDC quickly established a definition for the syndrome, the criteria of which included

  • A KS biopsy in persons under the age of 60, or other proven life-threatening or fatal OIs, and
  • No known underlying illness or history of immunosuppressive therapy (e.g., cancer).

This would serve as the foundation for the condition that would eventually become known as AIDS. Modifications in 1985, 1987 and 1993 would further append the list to include conditions that are classified as being AIDS-defining.

The CDC, in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), issued their first prevention recommendations in 1983. During the next eight years, the CDC would release nearly 50 sets of recommendations and guidelines for the care and prevention of HIV—a function to which it continues to serve alongside the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), and others.

In 1985, the CDC organized the first international AIDS conference in Atlanta as HIV infections were first being described in parts of Central and Southern Africa. Today, the CDC continues to play a critical role in the global effort by contributing much of the epidemiological and scientific research on which the U.S. and global HIV/AIDS policies are based.

Additionally, the CDC serves as a technical agency on behalf of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), alongside other organizations such as the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID). In this capacity, the CDC is responsible for managing, monitoring, and evaluating bilateral HIV/AIDS programs funded by PEPFAR in over 75 countries.

In 2011, the CDC was criticized by the DHHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) for failures in the awarding and/or monitoring of 30 PEPFAR-funded grants.

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