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At a news briefing on SARS recently, Julie Gerberding was asked whether it could be possible that the mysterious new virus had fallen to Earth from outer space.
She laughed, but she answered the question with her usual professional poise.
''We have no scientific evidence that SARS or any other infectious disease has dropped off a meteor at this point in time,'' Gerberding said. ''But we have an open mind, and should we discover any evidence supportive of that, we would let you know.''It was a rare light moment for Gerberding, who is director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an era marked by a steady stream of scary medical news. Through the worst West Nile epidemic in history, threats of bioterrorism, the smallpox vaccination program, the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome and now monkeypox, Gerberding helps reassure a jittery America with solid information delivered in language people understand.
Perhaps more than any previous CDC director, Gerberding has become the face and the voice of public health. Easily recognizable, with that dramatic streak of gray hair that partially frames her face and her give-it-to-you-straight delivery, her style projects a sense of calm rationality in the face of menacing microbes that may just as well be dropping from space for all their unpredictability.
Her status as the first female director of the CDC, her striking appearance and obvious intelligence have brought her unaccustomed attention. She is featured in an article on SARS in the June issue of Vogue, looking glamorous in a Chanel suit and open-toed Marc Jacob spikes.
C. Charles Stokes, director of the CDC Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports the work of the CDC, says behind that style is substance.
''The reassuring part of Julie is that it's more than just an impression,'' Stokes says. ''She knows the science, and she nails the science before she speaks with the public.''
'A go-to type of person'
Improving the flow of information between the CDC, other health professionals and the public has been a priority for Gerberding, who came to the attention of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson during the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001. At that time, the CDC was criticized for remaining silent and inaccessible, at least in the early days, while misinformation and panic swept the country.
Thompson met with Gerberding and others at the CDC several times during that period, and ''I just learned that she was a go-to type of person,'' he says. ''I became very impressed by her.''
When her predecessor, Jeffrey Koplan, resigned as director, Thompson tapped her, he says, because ''she's extremely intelligent, very competent, very politically shrewd. She knew the issues.''
In her first year, Gerberding has gone to great lengths to make sure the right information quickly gets to those who need it. She spends much of her time talking to people: making television appearances, holding countless media briefings, speaking at medical conferences, and conducting regular conference calls and Web casts with representatives of medical groups and public health agencies.
''We learned a lot of lessons from the terrorist attacks,'' Gerberding says. ''We learned that public health needed leadership in communication and that the CDC needed to be more visible.''
She also has kept a grueling schedule, frequently flying back and forth between CDC's Atlanta headquarters and Washington, D.C., to meet with Thompson and other top medical officials. Despite the pressures of the job, Gerberding, 47, says she manages to find time to spend with her husband, David Rose, a computer software engineer, his daughter, Renada, and their three cats.
''We've only been married less than three years,'' Gerberding says. ''This is not exactly how I'd recommend spending your honeymoon.'' Rose understands the demands of her work, she says. ''He knows I'm passionate about it, and he couldn't be more supportive.''
They share an interest in gardening and hiking. ''In Georgia, there are a lot of areas of untouched forest, but developers are threatening those areas. The Georgia Native Plant Society allows people to go rescue native plants, so we do. We plant them in the backyard, in our pretend forest.''
Gerberding began to make her mark as a medical student at the University of California-San Francisco, where she had been ''considered one of the bright stars,'' says Julius Krevans, chancellor emeritus.
Her early research in hospital infections dovetailed with the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, he says, and placed Gerberding among a small group of medical professionals whose leadership would establish the way people with HIV would be dealt with in the workplace.
At that time, Krevans says, institutions from hospitals to large businesses didn't know how to deal with the disease or how they should respond, ''keeping in mind the sensitivity, rights and compassion you need for someone who is HIV-positive.''
Seeing the big picture
Gerberding was asked to come up with a plan, and she did, crafting the first set of HIV guidelines for employers. These were adopted by major companies such as Levi Strauss and later by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.
''From the beginning of her career, she had thrust upon her a responsibility to think through something that affected not just an individual patient, but something that affects a community, the larger society,'' Krevans says.
Stokes says Gerberding's ''natural managerial ability'' combined with ''this calming, reassuring personality'' is the right medicine for the times we live in.
''People want to believe they're getting a straight answer and the right answer, and Julie conveys that. When you combine her interest in the very best science and her belief that the CDC ought to communicate straight with the public, it's a great mixture, and it's what the country needs in this time when there is so much fear out there.''
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