Tuesday, 17 May 2011

David Sencer

David Sencer, who died on May 2 aged 86, was a leading American health official who became the fall-guy for alleged planning failures during a series of public health scares. 

public health scares.

David Sencer


As director of the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 1966 to 1977, Sencer, a respected scientist, was credited with expanding the role of the agency to include family planning, tobacco control and occupational health. He initiated campaigns on malaria and nutrition and also framed guidelines for quarantining astronauts returning from the moon, which it was feared at the time might be a source of extraterrestrial pathogens. Under his leadership the CDC also led a programme that contributed to the worldwide eradication of smallpox. Yet when health issues entered the political arena, Sencer was caught between politicians’ demands for answers and the scientific language of probabilities.
His troubles began in February 1976, when a swine flu virus attacked more than 200 soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, causing severe respiratory disease in 13 and one death. Fearing a rerun of the 1918-19 “Spanish flu” pandemic, Sencer advised the White House that the nation should be vaccinated, arguing that the whole American population was “probably susceptible to this new strain”. Six weeks later President Gerald Ford declared the government would vaccinate “every man, woman and child” and asked Congress for an emergency $135 million appropriation.
The mood of panic was exacerbated in July when a group of veterans at an American Legion convention at a Philadelphia hotel were struck down with a mystery lung infection (subsequently known as Legionnaire’s disease), from which 34 died. Amid the mounting hysteria, Sencer dispatched 20 epidemiologists to investigate, but it took several months to determine the cause, which turned out to be a strain of bacteria found in the hotel air-conditioning system. As a result he and the CDC drew criticism for what one congressman termed “a decided lack of organisation”.
With the trauma of the Legionnaire’s outbreak still fresh, the nationwide flu vaccination programme began on October 1. Over the next three months, a third of the adult population of the United States — 40 million people — received the vaccine. But while the flu failed to take hold, doctors began reporting dozens of cases of side effects from the vaccine, particularly a debilitating, and occasionally fatal, disorder of the nervous system known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome. On December 16 the programme was suspended, condemned as a fiasco.
Sencer was relieved of his responsibilities by the incoming Carter administration in 1977.
David Judson Sencer was born on November 10 1924, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his father, who died when David was four, was in the furniture business. After winning scholarships to the Cranbrook School and Wesleyan University, he joined the US Navy which sent him to medical school at the University of Mississippi. He completed his medical degree at the University of Michigan.
He decided on a career in public health after spending two years recovering from tuberculosis, later earning a master’s degree in public health at Harvard. He joined the US Public Health Service in 1955 and the CDC, as assistant director, in 1960.
After leaving the CDC Sencer worked briefly in the private sector, before his return to public service in 1982 as New York City health commissioner under mayor Ed Koch in the early years of the Aids epidemic. There Sencer argued that drug addicts should be issued with free needles and opposed efforts to close gay “bathhouses”, saying that closure would merely drive the disease underground and make it more difficult to promote the message of safe sex. Again, he found himself in an impossible position – attacked both by moral campaigners accusing him of condoning drug use and immorality and by gay rights groups for dragging his feet.
Despite these travails, he remained involved with the CDC and advised the agency during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
David Sencer is survived by his wife, Jane, and by their son and two daughters.



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