The position of Surgeon General has much more to do than slapping warning labels on tobacco products. In fact, the position of Surgeon General was created implicitly to maintain public health by enforcing a uniform public health policy and to coordinate efforts between national agencies, especially in times of national health concerns.
According to Tom Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the presence of a Surgeon General may have prevented the two healthcare workers in Dallas from contracting the Ebola virus in the United States, as there would have been one single, streamlined, concerted plan on how to prevent the spread of the disease.
Dr. Richard Carmona, who held the position of Surgeon General from 2002 to 2006, says another role of the Surgeon General is to shape public viewpoints and beliefs by providing one clear, consistent message. As for now, he says, there are too many messages. He doubts that the number of Ebola cases in the United States would be much different, but believes the public perception of the disease would be different.
“At a time like this, the Surgeon General could be, if you will, the ‘doctor of the nation,’ chief educator to speak to people on a regular basis, and help to allay some of their fears, to help them understand the complexity of the issue, and this way the public would hear one authoritative voice with a single message,” he said.
The fact that there hasn’t been “a single message” has led to confusion. For example, nurses say they haven’t received consistent instructions on how to treat a potential Ebola case. And two-thirds of Americans express concern over a widespread Ebola epidemic in the United States, despite the fact that all evidence points to the contrary.
And so the recent and growing concern of Ebola in the United States has many people wondering – why isn’t there a Surgeon General? The position has been vacant for over a year.
The answer to that question is unfortunate and disappointing. As Steve Doocy of Fox News said, “You would normally think that in something like this, the Surgeon General would be in charge, but right now at this point oddly, the United States of America does not have a Surgeon General. His nomination is tied up in politics.”
Nearly a year ago, President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy. Dr. Murthy had great qualifications and background as an attending physician, an instructor, and a public-health advocate. At first, it seemed as though there would be no reason that his nomination would not go through.
But Murthy, like many in the medical field, believes there is a connection between gun violence and public health. In 2012, he tweeted “Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue.”
The National Rifle Association (NRA) went into action, demanding that the Senate reject Murthy’s nomination because of “the likelihood he would use the office of surgeon general to further his preexisting campaign against gun ownership.”
Senate Republicans immediately capitulated to the NRA’s demands. Senate Democrats could have feasibly pushed through Dr. Murthy’s nomination, but a handful of Democratic senators in states where gun-control sentiment is strong also refused the nomination, fearing they would lose their seats.
And so, in an odd twist, the national gun control debate has led to the United States being without a Surgeon General in a time when one is greatly needed.
For now, the public will continue to rely on Tom Frieden of the CDC to be the “voice” of health while Ebola continues to be a concern in the United States.
[Image via patdollard.com]