CDC No Longer Keeps Us Safe

With flu raging through 46 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking center stage, advising the public and physicians. How much can you believe? Until last year, polls showed the CDC was the most trusted federal agency. But then the CDC 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.



After the attacks on September 11, 2001, 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 left us woefully unprepared, according to the AP. “A mediocre outbreak” could overwhelm the system, said Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University.

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When Ebola struck, the stockpile was already out of essential gear like waterproof gowns. They ran out during the 2009 swine flu threat. The CDC 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. No wonder that in 2013, the CDC gave state health departments a failing grade on preparedness (5.8 out of a possible 10).


The agency had so many potentially lethal mishaps in the past year that outside scientists are urging Congress to bar most of the 1,500 CDC labs from handling deadly bugs. The CDC 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.


Legionnaire’s disease is a problem the CDC has chosen to ignore. It’s a type of pneumonia you can only get from water in contaminated pipes.

Europeans routinely test their pipes for the bug, which can be eradicated easily. But the CDC opposes testing until tragedy strikes, like the 2012 Pittsburgh VA outbreak that killed five. As a result, the problem has more than quadrupled in the past decade. Amazingly, the CDC doesn’t even have current data, though Paul Edelstein of the University of Pennsylvania estimates that it infects more people in the U.S. yearly than HIV.


C. diff, short for Clostridium difficile, is raging through American 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 CDC also has allowed the spread of the deadly germ CRE, short for Carbapenem-resistant bacteria. CDC Director Tom Frieden calls it “nightmare bacteria” and warns that it could make going to the hospital too dangerous. 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.

In 2013, Frieden belatedly called for “urgent action.” There’s not much to show for it. 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 CRE by 70 percent in one year.


Nothing proves the CDC’s mission confusion more than its 2015 budget request.

The CDC sought just $85 million to fight hospital infections — which sicken two million Americans a year — but requested twice as much ($161 million) to fight polio, a disease that afflicted only 350 people in the entire world last year.

CDC budget makers cut cancer screening and prevention by $53 million and domestic preparedness by $85 million, but created a new $80 million program to hand out money to community organizations for healthy living and asked for $10 million for gun violence research (a request Congress denied).

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 CDC is public safety and preparedness — precisely the mission the CDC is neglecting.

Betsy McCaughey, Ph.D., is chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths and a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.

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