President Biden recently appointed Dr. Mandy Cohen as the new director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the announcement couldn’t have come at a more critical time. Many Americans have lost faith in public health and the agencies that monitor, respond and protect the health of our nation.   

Dr. Cohen has the important and unenviable task of restoring trust in the CDC, an agency that is one of the world’s leading authorities on public health. She can’t do it alone. America’s ability to address current and future health threats depends on changing the way we view public health agencies like the CDC and the professionals who staff them. 

New research — conducted by the CDC — found nearly a quarter of Americans don’t trust the agency’s health recommendations. Only 37 percent of those surveyed do, and that number is on the decline. Polling by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation two years ago found that more than 50 percent trusted the agency. That’s a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who no longer view the CDC as a credible voice on health issues.  

And it’s not just the CDC; state and local health officials are considered the least respected, as just 10 percent of those polled by the CDC expressed overwhelming trust in their public health guidance. This is a crisis we all need to address. 

Responding to complex health problems requires that we trust the leadership of independent experts and organizations like the CDC. But when elected leaders use them as tools to advance political party ideologies, public health suffers.  

Health professionals seen as agents of red or blue agendas are both villainized and dismissed by half the population. Dr. Anthony Fauci never ran for elected office and has served Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents throughout his career — yet many consider him a divisive figure because a group of lawmakers turned him into a political lightening rod simply for doing his job to try and keep America safe during the pandemic.  

Rebuilding trust in the CDC requires that we rise above politics and see the CDC and its people for who they truly are: committed health advocates serving our shared self-interest. We must treat them as stewards of our collective safety, not governors of our personal freedoms. 

America’s growing distrust of vaccinations provides a case in point. As of May, just 20 percent of the U.S. adult population had received a COVID-19 booster. In February, the government stopped providing COVID-19 shots free of charge, which will only fuel decreasing immunization rates.    

These developments, combined with rising anti-vaccination sentiments that have resurfaced amid the presidential campaign, demand increased efforts by the CDC to communicate the value and effectiveness of immunizations. This is especially true when it comes to child vaccinations, where support has dropped in more than 50 countries, including the United States. Globally, research by UNICEF found that women have less confidence in child vaccines since the pandemic started, which is concerning as women of childbearing years make up the vast majority of health care decisions on behalf of U.S. families.  

Today, the rate of U.S. vaccinations for incoming kindergarteners has dropped for two consecutive years, which means nearly 275,000 children will be without proper protection from contagious and serious diseases such as measles. 

Diminishing support from Washington for the CDC has hamstrung its ability to promote the best weapon we have to protect child health. A casualty of last month’s debt-ceiling negotiations, the agency is now facing a $1.3 billion reduction in funding, and the CDC is notifying states that it will be scaling back its support of child vaccination initiatives as a result. 

Agency representatives reportedly said the cutback could bring “less complete reporting” of child vaccinations. “This is what happens when you don’t pay attention to public health,” noted American Public Health Association Executive Director Georges Benjamin. 

COVID-19 may not be in the news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t dying from it and that we no longer need to fund vaccination efforts to manage it moving forward. And we cannot risk lingering COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy from influencing vaccine decisions that stand the best chance of protecting America’s children from spreading potentially deadly communicable diseases.  

The CDC needs more resources to communicate with the American public — both about emerging public health threats and about the importance of childhood vaccinations. And lawmakers need to prioritize health and disease prevention, not treat the agency charged with safeguarding our well-being as an expendable line item in the federal budget. Dr. Cohen also needs to step forward and convey the importance of public health.

Americans need to be able to trust the CDC and Dr. Cohen because the health of the nation depends on it.  

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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