The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the Atlanta, Georgia-based agency of the Public Health Service that has led efforts to prevent diseases such as malaria, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). As the nation's prevention agency, the CDC's responsibilities have expanded, and it now addresses contemporary threats to health such as injury, environmental and occupational hazards, biological terrorism, behavioral risks, and chronic diseases.
The CDC has a mission to protect health and make health equitable. To do so, the agency works with partners within the United States and around the world to do the following:
The CDC is open and working 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the event of an infectious disease outbreak, natural disaster, or other incident such as a biological, chemical, radiological, or explosive disaster. More than 15,000 government employees and 20% of all employees are contracted people. Most of the people work at the offices in Atlanta, but some also work at 11 offices around the country and 56 international locations. The agency has a yearly budget of $11.1 billion. The funding is spread among many disease categories, and immunizations receive the highest percentage of CDC funding.
Although the CDC has workers in more than 160 occupations to support its efforts, more than 40% of the agency's workforce is made up of microbiologists, general health scientists, medical officers, and public health program specialists. CDC staff members work at 20 quarantine stations around the United States in case there is a need to quell an outbreak of an infectious disease.
Divisions within the CDC use surveillance, epidemiologic and laboratory studies, and community interventions to investigate and prevent public health threats. For example, the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion designs programs to reduce death and disability from chronic diseases—cardiovascular, kidney, liver and lung diseases, and cancer and diabetes.
The Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control assists public health officials at the scene of natural or artificial disasters such as volcano eruptions, forest fires, hazardous chemical spills, and nuclear accidents. Scientists study the effects of chemicals and pesticides, reactor accidents, and health threats from radon, among others. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health helps identify chemical and physical hazards that lead to occupational diseases. The Center for Infectious Diseases investigates outbreaks of infectious disease locally and internationally. The Center for Prevention Services provides financial and technical assistance to control and prevent diseases. Disease detectives in the Epidemiology Program Office investigate outbreaks around the world.
Prevention of tobacco use is a critical health issue for CDC because cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in this country. The Office on Smoking and Health conducts research on the effects of smoking, develops health promotion and education campaigns, and helps health departments with smoking education programs.
Preventing and controlling infectious diseases has been a goal of the CDC since its inception in 1946 as the Communicable Disease Center. When it began, the CDC had only seven medical officers. The agency originated from a wartime agency that focused on fighting malaria. By 1949, the United States had been declared free of malaria. A surveillance program was established for polio in 1955, and through the 1970s, the CDC worked on a number of public health discoveries and efforts. In 1974, the agency began its major campaign to increase the number of Americans who received immunizations. The agency celebrated its 65th anniversary in 2011.
The CDC says that all told, public health can be credited with adding 25 years to Americans' life expectancies. Although the CDC has made many strides since 1946, the agency touts 10 of the most important public health achievements for the CDC. These accomplishments are:
In addition, CDC researchers have improved technology for lead poisoning screening, particularly in children. CDC evidence on environmental lead pollution was a key in gasoline lead content reduction requirements. The CDC also coordinated and directed health studies of Love Canal, New York, residents in the 1980s. The director of the CDC administers the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the public health agency created to protect the public from exposure to toxic substances in the environment. In 1990, CDC became responsible for energy-related epidemiologic research for the U.S. Department of Energy nuclear facilities. This includes studies of people who have been exposed to radiation from materials emitted to the air and water from plant operations. The early 2000s saw the CDC focus on bioterrorism, with CDC scientists identifying potential organisms, formulating prevention and response plans, and investigating and responding to the anthrax attacks of 2001, which used the U.S. Postal Service to distribute anthrax to several locations and resulted in localized outbreaks and five deaths.
In general, CDC data provide important information for public health professionals, communities, consumers, and clinicians. For example, the CDC offered tips on how to reduce health hazards in the hours before Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard late in October 2012. The agency frequently spreads information on important disease outbreaks and advises people in certain populations, such as the elderly or pregnant women, to have necessary vaccinations.
The CDC today carries out an ever-widening agenda, with studies on adolescent health, dental disease prevention, the epidemiology of violence, and categorizing and tracking birth abnormalities and infant mortality. CDC's Vision for the twenty-first Century is “Health Protection…Health Equity.”
See also Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ; disease outbreaks ; Bioterrorism ; Love Canal ; Malaria ; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ; Pandemics ; Public Health Service ; Viruses .
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McKenna, Maryn. Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Meyerson, Beth E., Frederick A. Martich, and Gerald P. Naehr. Ready to Go: The History and Contributions of U.S. Public Health Advisors. Research Triangle Park, NC: American Social Health Association, 2008.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vision, Mission, Core Values, and Pledge.” http://www.cdc.gov/about/organization/mission.htm (accessed October 25, 2012).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the Twentieth Century.” http://www.cdc.gov/about/history/tengpha.htmm (accessed October 25, 2012).
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Inquiries/MASO, Mailstop F07, 1600 Clifton Road, Atlanta, GA, USA, 30333, (800) 311-3435, http://www.cdc.gov .
Revised by Teresa G. Odle