CDC director Frieden testifies before Congress about Ebola

Oct. 16, 2014

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, testified before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee today about his agency's efforts to combat the Ebola virus at home and abroad. Some Republican members of the committee were harshly critical of the CDC, in an atmosphere that was tense and at times acrimonious. “To protect the United States we have to stop Ebola at its source,” Frieden said, stressing that protecting the United States from the possibility of an outbreak ultimately depended on controlling the epidemic in West Africa.

Committee members did not disagree with that; Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich), for instance, said, “You're right; it needs to be solved in Africa.” But Upton and other Republicans insisted that the United States should be protected in the immediate run by instituting a travel ban from the affected nations to the U.S. The CDC and the Obama administration has firmly opposed that strategy, arguing that it would result in people from West Africa entering the United States by more indirect routes, and thus being harder to track; and that isolating the African nations would only worsen the epidemic there, which would have long-term destabilizing effects that would eventually create problems for the U.S. and Western Europe in our modern interconnected world.

Frieden, as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, also had to defend missteps related to the treatment of now-deceased Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan in a Texas hospital earlier this month, and the flaws in the hospital protocols that led to two nurses being infected. The fact that the CDC permitted one nurse to travel on a commercial airline even after she had self-reported that she had fever, but before she was confirmed to have Ebola, may have particularly shaken the confidence of many Americans, who may be increasingly less inclined to believe CDC reassurances that the chances of an Ebola breakout on American soil are exceedingly low. Frieden and Fauci acknowledged mistakes but asserted that the situation remained under control.

Democratic members of the Committee also asked tough questions of the officials, but made a separate point: that budget cuts promulgated by the Republican-controlled House may have played a part in the problems the CDC and NIH have had in coordinating the critical public health response. Republican committee members retorted that President Obama had, after all, signed off on those cuts.

It is regrettable that the virus of partisan politics seems to be infecting the discussion–and may do so even more between now and Election Day, November 4. In the last day, Republican candidates for Congress, particularly for the Senate, where the GOP needs a net gain of six seats to gain majority control, have increasingly taken up the banner for the travel ban. Americans need to unite against the determinedly apolitical Ebola virus.