Georgia Public Health Chief Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, to Head CDC

July 07, 2017

UPDATED July 7, 2017 // Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, Georgia's public health commissioner and someone widely respected in her field, has been named director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price, MD, announced today.

An obstetrician-gynecologist and politically well connected, Dr Fitzgerald takes over from acting CDC Director Anne Schuchat, MD, who will reclaim her former post as the agency's principal deputy director. Dr Schuchat filled in when Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, resigned in January after an 8-year stint during the Obama administration.

Dr Brenda Fitzgerald

Dr Fitzgerald has served as Georgia's public health commissioner since 2011. In that role, she is best known for an initiative called "Talk With Me Baby," which seeks to encourage language development in babies. She also has led efforts to improve childhood immunization rates, reduce childhood obesity, and encourage smoking cessation.

As evidence of her stature in public health circles, she is the president-elect of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). Her appointment to head the CDC, which does not require Senate confirmation, drew praise from ASTHO's executive director, Michael Fraser, PhD. "Dr Fitzgerald's firsthand experience working on the front lines of public health and dealing with real-time health emergencies make her an ideal leader for the [CDC]," Dr Fraser said in a news release.

Likewise, former CDC chief Dr Frieden said in an email to Medscape Medical News that Dr Fitzgerald''s time as a state health commissioner is a plus. "Her enthusiasm and energy are great assets," he added. ‘I wish Dr Fitzgerald well."

Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), told Medscape Medical News that Dr Fitzgerald "will be good for the CDC."

"She is competent, evidence-based, and likable," Dr Benjamin said. "I have had the opportunity to work with her on a couple of workforce issues and found her knowledgeable. She knows her way around complicated policy issues. She has the strong support of the APHA and of course, myself."

Out of Step With Trump on Childhood Vaccinations?

Experts say one challenge for Dr Fitzgerald in her new job is securing adequate funding for the CDC.

President Donald Trump's proposed budget for 2018 would cut the agency's line by $1.3 billion, or roughly 17%. ASTHO as well as major medical societies have decried the reduction as dangerous to the nation's health. Both Dr Frieden and Dr Benjamin said the agency needs more money to fill a multitude of job vacancies. And if Congressional Republicans are successful in repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the CDC would lose almost $1 billion per year as well the money that it now receives from the ACA's Prevention and Public Health Fund — money that is passed on, for the most part, to state and local public health programs.

Another possible friction point for Dr Fitzgerald is her mainstream view of childhood vaccinations and her rejection of the claim that they cause autism. "I've heard all the arguments against vaccination," she wrote in an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2014. "All have been debunked." Such remarks prompted vaccination critics, including some who are Trump supporters, to oppose her appointment at the CDC on social media. Trump himself has suggested that childhood vaccinations have caused autism and has explored the idea of creating a special vaccine safety commission, with Robert F. Kennedy Jr supposedly as its leader. Kennedy has promoted the widely discredited notion that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that contains mercury, can trigger autism and other neurologic disorders.

Dr Fitzgerald could find herself in any number of political crossfires, but she's no stranger to that world. In 1992 and 1994, she ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the House of Representatives in Georgia's 7th district (her new boss, Dr Price, had represented the state's 6th District until February). She has worked as a healthcare policy advisor to Newt Gingrich, another Georgia 6th district congressman and former House speaker, and former Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga), who died in 2000.

In addition to her political activity, she has spent three decades in clinical practice. She received an MD from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, Georgia, and completed her residency training at Emory-Grady Hospitals. She was an assistant clinical professor for a time at Emory Medical Center. A major in the US Air Force, she served at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, DC, and Wurtsmith Air Force Strategic Command Base in Michigan.

Follow Robert Lowes on Twitter @LowesRobert

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