President Barack Obama made a superb choice in selecting Dr. Thomas Frieden as the new director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the highly respected but demoralized public health agency. Dr. Frieden led the city’s Health Department for seven memorable years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg—and if he can do for the C.D.C. what he did for the Health Department, the nation will be very lucky indeed.
Dr. Frieden will take over the C.D.C. at a critical juncture. The outbreak of swine flu has thrust the agency into the public spotlight in recent weeks, and as New Yorkers realized this week, swine flu is hardly yesterday’s news. The C.D.C. will continue to be in the forefront of the global fight against the disease in the months to come.
And who better to lead that fight than Dr. Frieden, a specialist in infectious disease who understands the politics and pressures of public health policy? During his years as New York’s top doctor, he was a constant presence in the lives of New Yorkers, responding to health emergencies and seizing control of the public health agenda with his campaigns against smoking and trans fats.
Dr. Frieden is the second high-level public health professional from New York to win President Obama’s attention. Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who was health commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is President Obama’s choice to lead the Food and Drug Administration. The Senate confirmed her appointment on Monday.
Dr. Frieden’s tenure will be remembered for his vigorous support for the mayor’s ban on smoking in bars, his forceful campaign against trans fats in city restaurants and his aggressive condom distribution plan. These programs were not without controversy and opposition, but Dr. Frieden had the clarity of purpose and professional credibility to overcome his critics.
Both Dr. Frieden and Dr. Hamburg revived New York’s tradition as a leader in public health issues. Both worked on the troubling increase in TB cases in New York in the 1990s. In the new millennium, Dr. Frieden identified H.I.V., obesity and smoking-related illnesses as the most important preventable health problems in New York. And he attacked them with gusto, making New York a leader in 21st-century public health issues.
The issues that confronted New York in 2002, when he took office, confront the nation as a whole in 2009. But that’s not all that awaits Dr. Frieden. President Obama has promised a dramatic restructuring of the nation’s health care system. As head of the C.D.C., Dr. Frieden will be a key player in that effort.
He’ll be missed in New York, but the good news is that his replacement, Dr. Thomas Farley, is familiar with New York, having worked as a top aide to Dr. Frieden in 2007 and 2008. Like Dr. Frieden, Dr. Farley is an expert in infectious diseases and a leader in public health concerns. He will have no time at all to master the complexities of public health in New York—the stubborn swine flu continues to sicken New Yorkers and close schools. Dr. Farley figures to be a familiar face around City Hall for the foreseeable future.
That is how it should be. As Dr. Frieden reminded us, health issues are of vital concern for all of us. New York’s health commissioner should be as visible as the police commissioner—the war on crime, after all, is no less important than the war on poor health.
Dr. Frieden deserves the city’s thanks for restoring public health to a high priority in New York politics.