CDC’s Tom Frieden reflects on tenure’s successes

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The CDC's outgoing head, Tom Frieden, M.D., said the agency saw success in controlling the Ebola outbreak and in spreading the word about opioids.

As Tom Frieden, M.D., winds down his final days as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said that future administrations should work to establish an emergency response fund in case of an outbreak, highlighting influenza as a primary concern.

Tom Frieden
Tom Frieden

Frieden compared the CDC's funding requests to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in an interview with The Washington Post, noting that FEMA doesn’t have to go to Congress and request funding in the event of a natural disaster, a process that can significantly delay the response to a disease outbreak. During the Zika outbreak last year, the CDC was hampered for months by congressional waffling on funding.

“A rapid-response fund would allow us to do the equivalent of stopping an earthquake,” Frieden told The Post.

Despite the funding issues, he considers the CDC’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 as one of the agency’s greatest successes. Though there were missteps—two nurses were infected by the virus in Texas, raising questions about the CDC's ability to protect health workers—Frieden noted that efforts abroad, like in Nigeria, where the outbreak began, helped prevent widespread transmission in the United States.

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He also pointed to the opioid epidemic as an area where the CDC has improved awareness, though Frieden said enhancing pain management protocols is still a major area of concern for the CDC and other health agencies. Last year, the CDC released guidelines to help providers cut back on opioid prescriptions. Efforts to curb the epidemic remain a top priority for federal agencies in 2017.

The looming specter of an influenza epidemic is his greatest nightmare, Frieden told The Post. Even in a “moderate” flu year, he said, thousands of people die or are hospitalized because of the virus, so the possibility of a pandemic is frightening. That’s why, he stressed, it’s important for the CDC and other health agencies to be able to respond quickly to outbreaks. The CDC operates under a system that can be scaled up easily if needed, instead of having a “‘break-glass-in-case-of-emergency’ system,” he added.