January 23, 2009 / 12:09 AM / 12 years ago

Obama taps preparedness chief to head CDC

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dr. Richard Besser, who heads disaster and pandemic preparedness for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was named on Thursday as acting director of the agency.

Richard Besser, who heads disaster and pandemic preparedness for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is seen in this undated handout photo released to Reuters January 22, 2009. Besser was named on Thursday as the acting director of the agency. REUTERS/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Handout

Besser, trained as a pediatrician and infectious diseases expert, replaces Dr. Julie Gerberding, the high-profile CDC head who announced her resignation quietly last week. William Gimson, who is not a medical doctor, has been acting director.

“This designation will be effective until a permanent CDC ... director is appointed and enters on duty,” the Health and Human Services department said in a statement.

Besser has been director of the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, which is responsible for public health emergency preparedness and emergency response.

He helped coordinate the agency’s response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 along the Gulf Coast and has helped oversee CDC’s spending to help states get ready for a pandemic of influenza or other disease.

Besser has worked in the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, tracking food-borne diseases, and helped head a campaign to reduce the overuse of antibiotics.

CDC has been helping other agencies, notably the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, track a series of outbreaks of food poisoning, most recently involving salmonella in peanut products that has made nearly 500 people ill in 43 states.

Gerberding was known as an effective communicator but she fought many controversies during her six years as CDC head, including accusations of allowing former president George W. Bush’s administration to interfere in scientific decisions.

She also led an unpopular restructuring of the Atlanta-based agency and was accused of acting too slowly to protect people housed in trailers after the 2005 hurricanes from chemical fumes.

Besser has a degree in economics from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Philip Barbara

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