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Inside the super secure CDC Museum, which reveals the story of America’s pandemic headquarters – though there’s little on its Covid efforts


My car has been searched, my ID scanned and my intent questioned by armed guards. Never before have I met such intense security while visiting a museum.

Then again, this is no ordinary museum – it’s inside the headquarters of the United States government agency whose more than 10,000 employees are tasked with tackling health catastrophes, and which has an annual budget of US$9.3 billion.

The David J. Sencer CDC Museum is the only part of this complex in Atlanta, Georgia that can be accessed by the public. Free to enter, and open Monday to Friday, it explains the 77-year history and ongoing work of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reputedly the world’s largest government agency in its field.

Each day, behind a dense layer of security, CDC staff monitor infectious disease outbreaks worldwide, compile health data, create public-safety programmes and coordinate immunisation services. The agency’s scientists man bureaus in more than 60 countries, in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America.

The David J. Sencer CDC Museum is part of the complex housing the headquarters of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo: Shutterstock

Just four years ago, the CDC had a fairly low public profile, especially outside the US. Then 2020 brought us Covid-19.

The pandemic became so all-encompassing that virology and epidemiology became hot topics of discussion. The former is the study of viruses, while the latter analyses how disease is identified, spread and controlled.

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Many of us started casually referring to “comorbidity”, “herd immunity”, “droplet transmission”, the World Health Organization – and the CDC.

After the pandemic had abated, the CDC Museum – which was founded in 1996, the 50th anniversary of the CDC, which itself was established on July 1, 1946 as the Communicable Disease Centre – suddenly found itself with a much higher profile.

After our stringent security screening at the facility’s entrance, we park our car and walk through another checkpoint, into a modern, high-ceilinged lobby. To our right is a long hallway, down which a group of white-coated staff disappears into an area that is strictly off-limits to visitors. To our left is the two-level museum.

Visitors look at displays at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

With the aid of information boards and video screens, the permanent “CDC at 75” exhibition, on the lobby-level floor, traces the agency’s history.

The CDC opened in Atlanta with a budget of just US$10 million and fewer than 400 staff. Its central task was to prevent the spread of malaria across the US.

The disease was eliminated in the US by 1951, proving the value of the CDC, which grew swiftly to include a large team of scientists who could be deployed across the country to quell disease outbreaks or respond to chemical or biological warfare.

A poster shows how combating malaria was the first major mission of the CDC. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Soon, the scientists were helping to tackle foreign health crises.

In 1958, a CDC team travelled overseas for the first time, to Southeast Asia, in response to an epidemic of cholera and smallpox.

Another of the centre’s first major international projects involved the 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic, which was particularly severe in Hong Kong, where about 250,000 people were infected.

In response, the agency established an influenza surveillance unit, which pitched in as laboratories belonging to a variety of US organisations and pharmaceutical companies got to grips with the newly identified H2N2 strain.

A poster shows CDC microbiologist Dr Martin S. Favers using a bactronic colony counter for the Nasa Planetary Quarantine Programme at CDC’s laboratories in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

A decade later, the CDC was involved in countering the H3N2 strain, which had infected even more people in Hong Kong and became known as Hong Kong flu.

More than 50 years later, the CDC was again tasked with quelling a pandemic that had originated in southern China and organising mass vaccinations.

On January 5, 2020, the CDC conducted its first investigation into a handful of cases of a potentially new virus in China. Fifteen days later, its Emergency Operations Centre swung into action; on January 23, Wuhan and other cities in China’s Hubei province entered the world’s first Covid-19 lockdowns.

A historical poster encouraging public vaccinations against smallpox. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

The museum doesn’t focus heavily on the ongoing pandemic, although it does have a Covid-related art exhibition planned for June 17 to October 25, 2024.

It’s not clear whether the lack of Covid-19 exhibits is because of public criticism of the CDC – whose director, Dr Rochelle Walensky, in 2022 conceded that its handling of the pandemic had been below par – or whether, after years of blanket media coverage of the virus, the museum’s directors believe people have had enough of the topic for the time being.

Instead, visitors are presented with photos of CDC projects around the world, colourful old posters promoting vaccines, and footage of researchers at work inside sprawling CDC labs. The museum explains how CDC scientists have fought outbreaks of Aids, rabies, polio and smallpox.

Information on Aids and how CDC scientists have fought the disease. Photo: Ronan O’Connell

Alongside a gallery of artful images of these scientists, a display explains that the CDC started with just one lab. Now it has more than 200, equipped with the latest technology, in Atlanta and elsewhere in the US.

These facilities are staffed by more than 1,700 scientists, men and women who toil away to save lives and are celebrated very little beyond the confines of the David J. Sencer CDC Museum.

Article was originally published from here

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