From Humble Beginnings: The History of the CDC

By: Ahmed Mahmood

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the nation’s health protection agency guarding Americans from health threats both foreign and domestic. The CDC was thrown into the spotlight in 2014 during the West African Ebola crisis. When the virus made its way into the United States late last year, the CDC was the first responder and handled all subsequent domestic cases thereafter. Currently, the CDC is coordinating with healthcare facilities across the U.S. to handle influenza cases as well as a measles outbreak. While the CDC is currently the nation’s central authority on disease and illness, it was not always the health titan it is today. In fact, it also was not always called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The beginnings of the CDC lie in the jungles of the South Pacific.

During World War II, American soldiers were often exposed to the malaria virus.

When the battles spread to the jungles of the South Pacific, soldiers were exposed to many nasty afflictions like dysentery and beriberi. Unfortunately, those diseases did not even come close to the devastation caused by malaria. The dense canopies of the jungles, unbearable humidity, heavy rainfall and thick mud provided a nutritious breeding ground for the Anopheles mosquito, which is merely the host carrying the real source of malaria: the Plasmodium protozoa. Roughly 24,000 out of 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers in the South Pacific were infected with malaria and the outlook was not favorable since medical supplies were severely limited. The War Department needed to do something fast to keep the illness at bay, so they enlisted the help of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). From there, the PHS created a program called the Malaria Control in War Areas (MCWA). The program established their headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia mainly because southern military bases had the highest prevalence of malaria. The MCWA was led by a team of trained physicians, entomologists and engineers who planned to wipe out malaria by spraying a powerful insecticide, DDT, over these military bases. Congress extended the MCWA’s funding which expanded their reach beyond military bases to several residential regions. By the time the mass-sprayings stopped, the war was ending, but parasitic diseases would continue to arise due to soldiers returning from tropical cesspools of disease. The MCWA expanded its training to tackle the growing invasion of many tropical illnesses.

By 1946, the war was over, and the U.S. was on its way to becoming malaria-free. It was during this time that the MCWA proposed to change their identity to the Communicable Disease Center (CDC). They suspected they were going to step over certain boundaries of other organizations, mainly the National Institutes of Health (NIH); however, they were welcomed with open arms. The CDC would focus on control and prevention of disease while the NIH would concentrate on scientific research. During the Cold War, the CDC inaugurated  their Epidemiology Division, which was concerned with defensive strategies against biological warfare. In 1947, Emory University donated 15 acres of land to the PHS specifically designated for the CDC to use. However, budgetary issues delayed the relocation of the CDC’s base of operations until 1960.

After combating several public health diseases, such as polio, smallpox and measles, the Communicable Disease Center was renamed the Center for Disease Control in 1970 and finally changed their name to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1980. The CDC clinically diagnosed AIDS and improved influenza vaccines in addition to focusing on health promotion problems like smoking, child abuse and depression during the 80’s. In the 90’s, the CDC worked on eliminating polio from the Americas, discovered new transmission routes of HIV/AIDS and discovered several virulent disease that were resistant to current antibiotics. At the turn of the millenium, the CDC handled the anthrax bioterrorism cases, assisted in SARS surveillance and clinical evaluations and identified and handled the H1N1 flu pandemic. The CDC continues to supports efforts like the Global Polio Eradication Initiative while dealing with sporadic epidemics such as the fungal meningitis outbreak in 2012, the domestic Ebola cases in the latter half of 2014 and the amusement park measles outbreak in January.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps a constant watch over the United States of America trying its best to protect us from all health threats. The CDC extends its reach overseas as well, and it coordinates with countless health agencies to monitor and prevent emerging epidemics. From a budget of only $10 million and 400 employees in its beginnings to a budget close to $6 billion and 15,000 employees today, the CDC transformed into a national and global front fighting the constantly evolving war on disease.