Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, an ob.gyn. and most recently the public health commissioner for Georgia, was named the 17th director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July.
Dr. Fitzgerald comes to the CDC after 6 years as commissioner and state health officer for the Georgia Department of Public Health. She also has been a health care policy adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and ran for Congress herself in the 1990s. In addition to practicing medicine for 3 decades, she has served on the board and as president of the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society.
In this Q&A, Dr. Fitzgerald explains her vision for the CDC and how she believes her experience as an ob.gyn. will influence her tenure.
Question: What are you looking forward to as the new CDC director, and what are some of your top goals during your tenure?
Answer: The federal government holds responsibility to provide for the common defense. And CDC provides the common defense of the country against health threats. That’s why CDC’s mission of saving lives and protecting people means so much to me. As a doctor and a mother, I want to do everything I can to protect our future generations and keep them safe, whether it be from infectious or chronic diseases, natural or man-made disasters.
We are going to continue a legacy of protecting Americans from the things that we’ve been fighting for a long time, like heart disease and cancer, and from newer things like opioid overdose and the Zika virus. And we’ll continue to prepare for the next health threat, whatever it may be.
Q: How does your experience as an ob.gyn. shape your approach to this job?
A: There are two things that are important at CDC: science and service. CDC researchers are at the forefront of scientific research – and also provide a service by using scientific discoveries to improve health. That is the same approach I used as a practicing ob.gyn.: I brought the clinical lens that looked at the science, and then my work with my patients emphasized the service part.
As a practicing ob.gyn., it was my responsibility to address the questions and concerns of my patients. At CDC, I am just as committed to making science-based decisions and working with our experts to make sure doctors and patients have the state-of-the-art health information they need. I said when I went from being a clinician to being the state health official for Georgia that I went from treating one patient at a time to treating 10 million at a time. Now that’s changed to over 300 million.
Even though I am now CDC director and protecting the health of millions of people, my experiences as an ob.gyn. for 3 decades will forever shape how I work to improve the health of individual people and patients.
Q: What are the next steps for the agency in terms of its response to Zika virus?
A: Zika is the first infectious disease in 50 years that has been linked to birth defects. We know that the virus attacks neural tissue. We know that about 10% of babies are born with severe birth defects – and some babies born apparently normal later turned out to have neurologic problems, like blindness or deafness. And we suspect that there may be other problems we don’t know about yet.
I’m particularly concerned about developmental delays, as we know that early brain development is key to health and achievement for a child’s future. We are still learning more about Zika every day. It’s crucial that we – the health care and public health communities – work together and remain vigilant to ensure these babies receive the care they need. What Zika has taught us is that we need to establish a pregnancy and infant registry that can flag patterns of concerning health issues so that we can work together with health officials and clinicians to get ahead of emerging health threats.
Q: How can clinicians stay up to date on the rapidly changing guidance during an outbreak like Zika?
A: During outbreaks like Zika, public health officials are continually updating guidance so clinicians can get the latest information. You can check the latest CDC guidance about testing and follow-up care for pregnant women at www.cdc.gov/zika/hc-providers . Health care providers can also contact their state, local, or territorial health department to ensure the appropriate tests are ordered and interpreted correctly. CDC also maintains a 24/7 Zika consultation service for health officials and healthcare providers caring for pregnant women with possible Zika exposure.
Q: What steps will you take to decrease maternal mortality and to understand why this number is rising?
A: As an obstetrician, survival of mothers and babies is paramount to me. It’s so basic: mothers shouldn’t die. Sadly, about 700 women die each year in the U.S. as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications.
We know the leading causes of maternal mortality: cardiovascular disease, infections or sepsis, hemorrhage, and cardiomyopathy. We also know that an increasing number of pregnant women in the U.S. have chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease that puts them at risk of pregnancy complications or death.
CDC is committed to preventing pregnancy-related deaths and ensuring the best possible birth outcomes. We do this by conducting surveillance, supporting states in developing recommendations, and working with partners to promote evidence-based recommendations and best practices. State-based initiatives are important allies in bringing together OBs and the public health sector to show the importance of statewide efforts to reduce maternal mortality. There has been some exciting work done by the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative , which has created a series of toolkits designed to help health care providers with pregnancy or childbirth complications. CMQCC’s work is inspiring other states to follow suit.
The best coalitions are between ob.gyns., public health, and hospital associations. For example, AWHONN’s [Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses] Postpartum Hemorrhage initiative in Georgia, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia aimed to improve the treatment of obstetric hemorrhage. Even though 54% to 93% of maternal hemorrhage-related deaths are preventable with improved clinical response, not one single hospital in Georgia or New Jersey had implemented all the recommended preparedness elements for postpartum hemorrhage events. We can save mothers’ lives – we know what to do. It just takes all of us – ob.gyns., public health and hospital associations – leading the way to make sure it happens.
Q: How can we increase HPV vaccination?
A: The latest news is that more girls and boys are getting the HPV vaccine. New CDC data showed that 60% of teens aged 13-17 had received one or more doses of HPV vaccine in 2016 – an increase of 4% from 2015. Plus, the latest statistics show that HPV vaccination has led to significant drops in HPV infections: HPV-related cancers and genital warts dropped by 71% among teen girls and 61% among young women. Still, too many children aren’t completing the HPV vaccine series, leaving them vulnerable to cancers caused by HPV infection.
Providers can help increase HPV vaccination rates by using every patient visit to review vaccination histories, providing strong clinical recommendations and education to parents for HPV and other recommended vaccines, and implementing systems to minimize missed opportunities.
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