Dr. Richard Besser, Former CDC Director, Joins ABC Medical Team

Dr. Richard Besser brings decades of experience, swine flu expertise to new job.

ByKATE McCARTHY and LEE FERRAN via via logo
September 07, 2009, 9:51 PM

Sept. 8, 2009— -- Dr. Richard Besser, a 13-year veteran of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is chief health and medical editor of ABC News.

Before joining ABC, Besser served as acting director of the CDC and was the former head of the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response.

It was Besser who decided how to inform the country about the growing problem of swine flu, which he said could still result in nothing more than an average flu season to up to three times worse.

"So the important thing is the whole idea of shared responsibility. You're responsible for your own health and those around you," Besser said on "Good Morning America" today. Besser carries around hand sanitizer all the time.

Besser said kids and parents should should stay home from school or work when they feel sick and have a fever.

"If you're feeling lousy, you should stay home," Besser said. "See which way it's going to go."

People should wait at least one day after a fever has passed to go back to school or to the office, Besser said.

History of Helping Others

As a child, Besser spent summers volunteering with his parents on an Indian reservation. After college, he spent a year traveling the world, which he said opened his eyes to the disparity between those who have the hope of health and those who do not.

"I came back ready to go to medical school but thinking that my career would be in global health," Besser said.

Besser went on to specialize in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.

"I love working with children," Besser said. "When you interact with a child around an illness, you have the opportunity to really provide comfort and have an impact on that child's life."

Besser recalls one patient that changed the course of his career. Besser was in Bangladesh taking care of a boy who had a bad break in his leg.

"I sat with him as he died from tetanus, something very preventable. And when you see the situation that many people live in and their lack of access to many of the things that we have in this country, emotionally it's very difficult," Besser said.

Besser said it was that experience that led him to become a medical detective at the CDC, where he tracked outbreaks of communicable diseases.

Besser was awarded the Surgeon General's Medallion for his leadership in the H1N1 -- or swine flu -- response.

"I think the American people saw in him somebody who was well-informed," said Dr. David Satcher, former director of the CDC.

Besser and his wife, Jeanne, a food writer, have two sons, Alex and Jack.

"I am a hand-washing zealot. I think they often think that I'm a bit of a freak in that regard," Besser said. "It's such a simple thing, but it's the most important thing we can all do to prevent infections."

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