Quiet 'whiz kid' now public face of Ebola fight

Last May, as Ebola crept across West Africa, America's top infectious disease expert told a group of Harvard University students in a commencement speech to always second-guess their assumptions because "overconfidence can kill."

Washington: Last May, as Ebola crept across West Africa, America's top infectious disease expert told a group of Harvard University students in a commencement speech to always second-guess their assumptions because "overconfidence can kill."

Five months later in a congressional hearing room, Tom Frieden was accused of not following his own advice repeatedly assuring the US it was safe from an Ebola outbreak even as two US nurses became infected and one was allowed to board a commercial airline, each following safety protocols Frieden helped put in place.

"By underestimating both the severity of the danger and overstating the ability of our health care system to handle Ebola cases, mistakes have been made," Rep Tim Murphy, a Republican told Frieden and other national health experts during the hearing yesterday.

As director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Frieden, 53, had become the public face and potential scapegoat for the Ebola scare inside the United States.

Today, President Barack Obama announced he would appoint Ron Klain, a trusted political adviser, to become the point person on the US government's response to the Ebola crisis.

The youngest of three boys who grew up in Westchester County in New York with two highly educated parents, Frieden was the science "whiz kid" who never got in trouble and who would spend hours in the yard trying to perfect his baseball pitch a game he was "fanatical" about, according to his oldest brother, Jeffry Frieden.

As a medical student at Columbia University, Frieden spent a month trailing his cardiologist father at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.

He later told his brothers he learned more about medicine from their dad's meticulous note-taking and attentiveness to patients than he ever did in a classroom.

It was a lesson he took with him to India as a CDC expert on tuberculosis, where his program was credited with saving 3 million lives, and one he applied in New York as health commissioner, where he helped lead anti-smoking programs and a ban on trans fats.

In 1990, Frieden joined the CDC and became an expert on containing tuberculosis, spending five years in India assigned to the World Health Organization. He left in 2002 to become commissioner of the New York City Health Department, before returning to the CDC as its director in 2009 amid the global swine flu pandemic.  

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