The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a federal agency, under the United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), whose vision is to promote healthy people in a healthy world through prevention. CDC's mission is to promote health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability. The agency addresses a broad range of preventable health problems, from infectious disease to chronic diseases and risk factors to negative environmental effects on health. Most of CDC's seven thousand employees live and work in Atlanta, Georgia, the agency headquarters. CDC employees are also stationed in state and local health departments in all fifty states and in about twenty countries worldwide. CDC has facilities in Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Washington, and West Virginia.
CDC has three primary functions: to actively protect the health and safety of the nation; to provide credible information so that the general public, health care providers, and leaders in government can make well-informed health decisions; and to promote better health in all stages of life through strong partnerships.
CDC has always demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting health and safety. In 1942, malaria in the southeast United States was more common, so it made sense to establish the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas in Atlanta. Dr. Joseph Mountin, a leader of the Public Health Service, wanted to create a national organization to keep more than six hundred bases and essential war-industrial establishments in the southern United States malaria-free. At the end of World War II, Mountin created the Communicable Disease Center from these initial malaria-control efforts. The agency's purpose was to gather physicians, entomologists, and engineers in the battle against a wide range of infectious health risks.
Over the past fifty-three years, CDC's name has changed along with the evolution of its focus. The agency has maintained its commitment to the prevention and control of infectious disease, while building its efforts to address the leading health threats of the nation, including environmental hazards like lead poisoning, chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, occupational illnesses, and injuries at home, on the road, and on the playground. CDC has worked to reduce the spread of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) since its recognition in 1981. CDC has instituted important changes in treating and controlling the spread of this disease, including ensuring that the nation's blood supply is safe and reducing the risk of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) transmission in health care settings.
Along with actively protecting health and safety, CDC provides credible health information to various decision makers, including individuals making personal health decisions and policy leaders making decisions affecting larger populations. Working with state and local partners, CDC collects and analyzes data to monitor health threats, detect disease outbreaks, and identify risk factors and causes of diseases and injuries. CDC also conducts research to identify what works in disease and injury control and prevention.
CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), for example, is the nation's most comprehensive study of the health and nutritional status of Americans. Each year, approximately five thousand randomly selected residents in twelve to fifteen counties across the country have the opportunity to participate in the survey. NHANES is a unique resource for health information in the United States. Without it, decision makers would not have adequate data on health conditions and issues, such as obesity, environmental (secondhand) tobacco smoke, and lead poisoning.
CDC also provides information to the public via comprehensive public health communication programs on such issues as diabetes, skin and colorectal cancer, HIV, and hepatitis C. International travelers turn to CDC to obtain timely updates on disease outbreaks in foreign countries and a list of suggested immunization. The agency also publishes guidelines, such as its Community Prevention Guidelines, to identify evidence-based practices for disease control and prevention.
CDC's third function is to promote better health in all stages of life through strong partnerships. The agency has forged relationships with other federal, state, and local health agencies, not for-profit organizations, and members of private industry who have an interest in reducing the burdens of disease, injury, and disability. CDC's strongest traditional partnerships have been with state and local health departments. Through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, for example, CDC is providing funds and technical assistance to fifty states, five U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and fifteen American Indian/Alaska Native organizations. This program exemplifies how the combination of public health expertise in screening and detection, quality assurance, professional and public education, and coalition building can address critical gaps in health care needs. The program delivers critical breast and cervical cancer screening services to underserved women, including older women, women with low incomes, and women of racial and ethnic minority groups.
CDC has evolved from an agency focused on fighting infectious diseases to one that addresses a variety of health issues on both national and international fronts. In the future, it may need to address additional health issues such as responding to bioterrorism, using genetic information to improve health, reducing violence in society, and closing the gap in health disparities among racial and ethnic groups.
(SEE ALSO: Communicable Disease Control ; Noncommunicable Disease Control )
Etheridge, E. W. (1992). Sentinel for Health: A History of the Centers for Disease Control. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
JEFFREY P. KOPLAN