The Communicable Disease Center (CDC) has headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.  This may seem an odd place for a government agency, but there is a valid reason for the location.  The location chosen was done so because of the reason the center was created so many years ago.  Let’s look at the origins to discover the reason.

The First Disease Researched at the CDC

CDC Logo; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsIn 1946 the Communicable Disease Center opened with one primary mission:  to eradicate malaria from spreading across the United States.  Malaria, yes, malaria in the United States probably is a foreign concept to folksthese days; but back in the 1940s, the deep South was Preventive Measures; Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, photo by Journalist 1st Class James Pinsky, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, photo by Journalist 1st Class James Pinsky, Source: Wikimedia Commonsknown as the malaria zone.[1]  The budget for the agency was $10 million and it employed 400 personnel of varying expertise. At the time, it only employed seven medical doctors. [1]

The founder of the agency was Dr. Joseph Mountin, who immediately advocated for public health issues and pushed for the CDC to expand its responsibilities beyond malaria. In the first years of the agency, the focus was on malaria with about 50 percent of its personnel engaged in trying to prevent the disease from spreading.  DDT was used to spray areas where mosquitos thrived; in the initial years of the war on mosquitoes, over 6.5 million homes were sprayed.[1] In 1949 the United States was declared free of malaria as a significant health issue.[3]

Years of Disease Research and Study

The 1950s saw the agency start investigations and research into various diseases. Each year advances were made in the fight against communicable conditions and diseases. In 1950 the agency conducted its first investigation into polio; in 1951 the agency established the Epidemic Intelligence Service to help protect the U.S. against biological warfare and manmade epidemics; and in subsequent years, the CDC took on polio, rabies and made their first trip overseas in response to an epidemic of cholera and smallpox in Southeast Asia.  The National Surveillance Program was instituted to monitor specific diseases.

Vaccination; Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsIn the 1960s, various programs for conditions and diseases were transferred from the Public Health Service to the center.  Vaccines and immunizations were developed and promoted by the agency. Measles, shigellosis, tetanus, and trichinosis joined tuberculosis as those conditions monitored and studied by the CDC.  The Foreign Quarantine Service unit of the Public Health Service joined the CDC. In the late 1960s, the agency was renamed The National Communicable Disease Center.[3]

The 1970s started with yet another rename of the agency.  The National Communicable Ebola in Zaire; Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsDisease Center became the Center for Disease Control.  During this decade, the CDC did notable work in other countries; assisting Sierra Leone in fighting a new outbreak of Lassa fever; investigating two outbreaks of what later became known as Ebola in Zaire and Sudan; and helping to eradicate naturally occurring smallpox in Somalia.[3]

The 1980s marked several reports credited to research by the Center.  The first diagnosis of AIDS was reported in the weekly publication of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). MMWR also published the first report on toxic shock syndrome, an illness associated with tampon use.  The Center advised the public about the risk of Reye syndrome associated with the use of aspirin to treat children with chickenpox and flu-like symptoms; and reported about 7,000 workers die on the job annually.  It was during this decade the CDC studied the effects of exposure to Agent Orange on Vietnam Vets.[3]

The 1990s began with the CDC reporting AIDS could possibly be transmitted through invasive dental procedures.  In the mid-1990s, it recommended pregnant women be offered a test for HIV.  In the late years of the decade, CDC reported AIDS was diagnosed in more Hispanic and African-American men than in gay men.[3]

CDC Headquarters; Photo by Daniel Mayer, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Daniel Mayer, Source: Wikimedia Commons


CDC Researcher; Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the country moved into a new century, the focus of the CDC shifted to bioterrorism. The first case of anthrax sent through the mail was documented in 2001. Bioterrorism agents are categorized into three categories:[4]

Category A: High-priority agents include organisms that pose a risk to national security because they:

  • Are easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person;
  • Result in high death rates and can majorly impact public health;
  • Could cause public panic and disruption; and
  • Require special action for public health preparedness.

Agents included in Category A include:

  • Anthrax
  • Botulism
  • Plague
  • Smallpox
  • Tularemia
  • Viral hemorrhagic fevers (filoviruses such as Ebola and Marburg and arenaviruses such as Lassa and Machupo)

Category B: The second highest priority agents are those that are:

  • Moderately easy to disseminate;
  • Result in moderate illness and low death rates; and  
  • Require specific enhancements of CDC's diagnostic capacity and enhanced disease surveillance.

Agents included in Category B include:

  • Brucellosis
  • Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens
  • Food safety threats (such as Salmonella species)
  • Glanders
  • Melioidosis
  • Psittacosis
  • Q fever
  • Ricin toxin from Ricinus communis (castor beans)
  • Staphylococcal enterotoxin B
  • Typhus fever
  • Viral encephalitis
  • Water safety threats

Category C: This category of agents includes those emerging pathogens which could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future due to:

  • Their availability;
  • The ease of production and dissemination; and
  • Potential for high injury, illness and death and with major health impact.

Agents of Category C include:

  • Emerging infectious diseases such as Nipah virus and hantavirusCDC Staffers; Photo courtesy of the CDC,  Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the CDC, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Within the CDC the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response provides support, strategic direction and coordinates activities within the agency as well as to local, state, tribal, national, territorial and international public health partner agencies. States receive funding and technical assistance to ensure they are adequately capable of response to health threats.

The Role of the CDC Today

CDC Field Worker; Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsIn addition to research and surveillance of the bioterrorism agents, the Centers are dedicated to keep America safe from health and security risks, whether domestic or foreign.  Personnel have grown to over 15,000 with field agents in each of the fifty states.  In addition, 50 countries have CDC personnel assigned to field work.[5]

The name was changed to reflect the role of prevention and since several centers are within the agency, "s" was added to give the agency the current name of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the acronym CDC remains.  In addition toPreventing Malaria; Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of CDC, Source: Wikimedia Commons the headquarters in Atlanta, currently the Centers have quarantine stations in mostly coastal states as well as installations on the east and west coasts.  Colorado has two installations; one operating in Fort Collins and the other in Denver.

The budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is almost seven billions dollars.  It continues to research and develop various immunizations and vaccinations programs for a myriad of conditions and diseases not just in the United States, but worldwide.  It closely partners with organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to help keep deadly diseases at bay.


The copyright of the article One Disease Builds an Entire Agency to Combat Many Conditions and Diseases is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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