Obama names New York health chief to head CDC

ATLANTA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday named a new director for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tapping a health activist who pushed for expanding AIDS testing and banning smoking in restaurants.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden discuss swine flu cases found in New York, April 26, 2009. REUTERS/Chip East

Dr. Thomas Frieden, 48, who has been New York City’s top health official since 2002, will head the federal agency charged with protecting Americans from illnesses ranging from heart disease to new flu strains.

Under Frieden’s leadership, New York became the first city in the country to ban trans fats, which clog arteries and raise the risk of heart disease, from food in restaurants.

He will take over as director of an organization that has been central to global efforts to combat the H1N1 flu virus. The illness, also known as swine flu, has killed 65 people, most in Mexico and infected nearly 6,500 people in 33 nations.

“Frieden is an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies, and has been at the forefront of the fight against heart disease, cancer and obesity, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS,” the White House said in a statement.

“Frieden has been a leader in the fight for health care reform, and his experiences confronting public health challenges in our country and abroad will be essential in this new role,” it said.

In New York he spearheaded the country’s biggest community-based electronic health record project in an effort to improve preventive care.

Frieden also worked in India for five years on tuberculosis control and has experience as an epidemiologist, administrator, teacher, researcher, clinician and community organizer.

Frieden, who will start his job in June, told a news conference he was “deeply honored” by the appointment.

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The new CDC director brings “real world experience fighting AIDS” to the agency, according to The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest HIV/AIDS organization in the country.

Frieden has pressed for expanding routine testing for AIDS as a first step to controlling a virus that is spreading in the United States among minorities, gay and bisexual men and many women.

Jeff Levi of the Trust for America’s Health, an advocacy and study group often critical of U.S. health policy, described Frieden as a bold leader who could reinvigorate the CDC.

But he argued that the agency’s director is often a passive diplomat with fewer powers of direct persuasion than a state or city health officer and that the organization must wait to be invited by state authorities or governments to intervene.

In evidence of divided reaction to some of Frieden’s decisions in New York, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers, called Frieden an “over-zealous activist”.

Frieden “doesn’t give any consideration to personal responsibility or privacy” when it comes to health, said Justin Wilson, a research analyst for the center.

Frieden will likely follow the lead of former CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding in becoming a visible spokesperson for the agency. The CDC has been headed by acting director Dr. Richard Besser since Gerberding resigned in January.

Besser became the public face of the organization’s fight against H1N1 during daily televised news briefings. He will continue in his role coordinating CDC’s office of terrorism preparedness and emergency response, the statement said.

The CDC, based in Atlanta, has a budget of around $9 billion and is responsible for tracking diseases across the United States and helping other countries battle outbreaks of diseases ranging from H5N1 avian influenza to Ebola.

Additional reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington and Edith Honan in New York, Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Paul Simao