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New CDC director a leader on swine flu, preventive care

As New York City health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden helped lead efforts to contain the first concentrated outbreak of swine flu. And along with the mayor, he banned trans fats in city restaurants.

May 16, 2009|Noam N. Levey

WASHINGTON — In tapping New York City Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President Obama on Friday chose an official who has been on the front lines of the fight against swine flu.

Frieden, 48, helped lead New York's efforts over the last month to contain the spread of the disease, after the first concentrated outbreak in the U.S. was tied to a school in Queens.

But Frieden may be known best in public health circles as an advocate of government action in preventive medicine, which many experts say is crucial to the health system overhaul envisioned by Obama and his congressional allies.

In his 7 1/2 years leading New York's public health department, Frieden led campaigns to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, expand labeling of unhealthful ingredients in food, and develop a network of electronic health records in doctors' offices citywide.

"He has been at the forefront of dealing with cutting-edge issues . . . such as diet, smoking and lack of exercise," said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Assn. "Those are exactly the things that are driving up our health costs."

In announcing the widely anticipated selection Friday, Obama called Frieden a "leader in the fight for healthcare reform."

"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, [and] infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS," the president said.

Frieden will take over an agency that is working to repair its reputation after criticism that CDC science was politicized under President George W. Bush. Obama has pledged not to let politics and ideology influence policy decisions on science and medicine.

That should allow Frieden to focus the CDC on its dual missions of monitoring and controlling disease outbreaks and promoting public health, said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a Washington nonprofit that promotes disease prevention.

"He follows the science, which is actually what CDC needs now," Levi said.

Frieden most recently garnered praise for his response to the swine flu outbreak. "He gave the mayor just the kind of credibility that an elected official needs when talking about a public health situation. . . . He was the consummate professional," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

"The final report card is not in yet," Redlener added, noting that the flu remains a concern. "But they did very well on the midterms."

At the CDC, Frieden will be charged with preparing for the possibility of a more deadly outbreak later this year. Officials at the CDC, the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere are working to develop a vaccine in time for the traditional flu season, which can begin as early as October.

Long before this outbreak, Frieden established a reputation as one of the country's most activist health officials.

Working with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he helped develop New York's trailblazing push to ban harmful trans fats from restaurants in the city.

The city's program to help primary-care doctors install electronic medical record systems also has become a model nationally at a time when the Obama administration is working to dramatically increase the use of health information technology among doctors and hospitals.

The electronic records, which the city helps pay for and maintain, allow public health officials to look for disease outbreaks across the city as well as provide guidance to physicians in treating their patients.

Before becoming commissioner of the health department in 2002, Frieden, who has degrees in medicine and public health at Columbia, worked for five years in India on controlling tuberculosis.

He will replace Dr. Richard Besser, who won high marks as acting CDC director through the flu outbreak. Besser, who has led the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response for the last four years, will return to that post, the White House said.

Frieden's new post does not require Senate confirmation.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

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