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CDC chief on public health's front line

As head of the CDC, Dr. Julie Gerberding is charged with safeguarding the public's health.

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Julie Gerberding
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

(CNN) -- SARS, monkeypox, West Nile virus, anthrax, ricin, flu epidemics -- they are all in a day's work for Dr. Julie Gerberding.

As director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the first woman to hold the position, Gerberding oversees 12 federal institutes charged with protecting the public's health and safety.

Before taking the helm in July 2002, Gerberding was the acting head of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases. While in the post, she helped guide the federal agency's response to the anthrax bioterrorism attacks in the fall of 2001.

"Dr. Gerberding knows public health, she knows infectious diseases, and she knows bioterrorism preparedness," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson at the time of Gerberding's appointment to the Atlanta, Georgia-based agency. "She brings the right mix of professional experience and leadership skills to ensure the CDC continues to meet the nation's public health needs."

A native of South Dakota, Gerberding said she wanted to be a doctor since she was 4. On her way to that goal, she earned her undergraduate and medical degree -- as well as numerous scholastic honors -- from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

She moved to California to complete her internship and residency and there encountered cases that first sparked her interest in infectious disease.

"I started my training at the University of California, San Francisco, at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic and took care of the earliest patients there, who, in retrospect, we recognize had AIDS," she recalled in an interview in her alma mater's Case Magazine in 2003. "My clinical training really evolved with the AIDS epidemic, and it was natural to get started in the infectious disease area during that time."

Her interest in infectious diseases led to pioneering studies on HIV infections in healthcare workers. She helped create early prevention guidelines for them.

After stints on the faculty of UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital, she joined the CDC in 1998.

During her time at the agency, Gerberding has been involved with investigating a spate of outbreaks of uncommon -- and sometimes newly discovered -- diseases.

As SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, grabbed headlines last year, Gerberding guided an international effort to find out more about the sickness and how to protect the public. A monkeypox outbreak in summer 2003 spurred Gerberding and the CDC to probe the exotic pet trade and the spread of the disease to humans.

And a month before she took over as head of the CDC, she had close experience with the West Nile virus -- her husband contracted a mild case of the disease.

Although rare diseases sometimes grab the spotlight, Gerberding has said the everyday health problems of the U.S. public need just as much attention.

"Right now our nation's demographics are changing dramatically. Our population is aging. There is an obesity epidemic. Our racial and ethnic diversity is growing," she told the CDC Foundation in a 2002 interview. "These create new challenges for the public health system, because we must provide relevant services that meet the needs of all people."

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