Nature periodically issues forth reminders of its superior might. Humans dubbed the most recent ones — both members of the virus family — “Ebola” and “Zika.”
The outbreaks caused by each in recent years began far from the United States. But the fight to contain them relied heavily on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In an age when funding shortfalls and political tensions have weakened international health organizations, it is the Atlanta, Ga.-based CDC that often leads the global response to epidemics, as it did with Ebola and Zika.
The world’s heavy reliance on this premiere public health agency ought to factor prominently into policymakers’ decisions involving it. Strong leadership is imperative. Politics must absolutely not interfere when it comes to funding scientists’ work. Regrettably, recent allegations of “banned” words at the agency raise troubling questions about these critical obligations under President Donald Trump’s stewardship.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the administration had given CDC leaders a list of seven “forbidden” words — vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based. The report understandably raised concerns about abortion opponents and others with political agendas within the White House censoring the agency’s leaders and interfering with its scientific work.
Additional information provided by the agency has since clarified the situation. The seven words are not barred agencywide, a CDC statement said. Instead, agency officials said that White House budget officials recommended that the agency avoid them as it prepares annual federal funding requests. In a lengthy weekend thread on Twitter, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald said the agency remains a “science- and evidence-based institution.”
The details have helped tamp down fears among public health experts in Minnesota and elsewhere about political meddling. Nevertheless, not all doubts raised by the seven-words kerfuffle have been resolved.
Whether the CDC has the strong director it needs is one. Dr. Fitzgerald — a Trump appointee, former Republican congressional candidate and a medical specialist in obstetrics and gynecology — is just five months into her job at an agency led by an infectious-disease expert for the past two decades.
Fitzgerald is understandably still working to earn the trust of her staff. Having the agency acquiesce to avoiding the seven words in budget documents didn’t help. She should have instead pushed back fiercely and publicly made the case about funding the agency without making it jump through political hoops.
This would have gone a long way to bolster her bona fides with her staff and public health experts everywhere. It also would have helped avoid future “recommendations” from the White House about what the CDC needs to say or do to secure federal dollars. That the agency might back off important work — such as prenatal disease exposure or the health risks of “vulnerable” populations — due to funding concerns is another major doubt lingering after the seven-word situation.
The CDC should be protected from political inference, not subjected to it. As representatives of a state with its own deep public health expertise, members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation ought to be at the forefront of ensuring the agency can carry out its vital mission.