The typical American is bombarded daily with acronyms -- abbreviations that have become pseudo-words made from the initials of agencies, such as FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation. They have been used more and more frequently over the years – but they have really exploded with the rise of text messages, email, and social media. NASA, POTUS, SCOTUS, CDC, WWII, ADA, FDA, EPA, NIH, OSU, ASAP, UTMC, AARP; on and on. There are so many you may want to BYOB. It wouldn’t shock me a bit if we soon saw a new Jeopardy question: “You have just 30 seconds to make a meaningful sentence only using acronyms.”
I have to admit that we scientists have done our part to pollute the language -- but the fact is that acronyms are quintessential Washington-speak. Most of the agencies identified by acronyms don’t impact folks much. NASA spends billions to put people and machines in space … but how many astronauts do you know personally? There’s only one POTUS, and just nine members of SCOTUS. There’s EU and NATO, UNESCO and UNICEF, Ph. D. and MD, CHM and CHE – perish the thought one improperly addresses a chemist as a chemical engineer or vice versa. UNISEX means something … but scratch that; UNISEX isn’t an acronym anyway.
But while they are easy to make fun of, a few of these acronyms are really important to all of us, especially in this time of the coronavirus. CDC stands for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This federal agency is under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Its main goal is to protect public health and safety through the control and prevention of disease, injury, and disability.
The CDC focuses its attention on infectious diseases, food-borne pathogens, environmental health, occupational safety and health, health promotion, injury prevention and educational activities designed to improve the health of U.S. citizens. Thousands work for it across the United States.
Its current director, Dr. Robert Redfield, is frequently present in discussing the COVID-19 viral pandemic, both as a member of the President’s coronavirus task force, and before Congress. Dr. Redfield has had an especially difficult job balancing competing forces during the pandemic.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is much older than the CDC, and also part of HHS. The FDA is responsible for protecting and promoting public health through the control and supervision of food safety, tobacco products, dietary supplements, prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceutical drugs and medications, vaccines, biopharmaceuticals, blood transfusions, medical devices, electromagnetic radiation emitting devices, cosmetics, animal feed and veterinary products.
How many times have we been warned about the dangers from bacteria in salmon or lettuce, for example? Those were likely FDA warnings. Like the CDC, the FDA saves lives, and is huge. It regulates more than 25% of consumer expenditures in the United States. This includes food sales, cosmetics and vitamin supplements. Much of these regulated products are for imported goods, because the FDA is responsible for monitoring imports.
All new drugs must be approved by the FDA before they can be sold in the United States.
The FDA will authorize COVID-19 vaccines for use, after, and if they have confirmed that the vaccines are safe, do what they are supposed to and provide protection from the virus.
And then there’s the NIH – the National Institutes of Health. The NIH began in the late 19th century when citizens wanting to immigrate to the United States were checked at our borders for various infectious diseases – typhoid, diphtheria, small pox, tuberculosis. It’s grown enormously since, and there are now 18 separate institutes under the NIH umbrella headquartered in Bethesda, MD under the direction of Dr. Francis Collins.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) -- the institute headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci -- is part of NIH. Others, as in the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the Institute of General Medicine (GMI), the National Eye Institute (NEI) and the National Institute for Heart Disease and Stroke (NIHDS) each have their own directors. The idea is to protect our citizens by controlling and containing all threatening diseases, old and new.
All these individual institutes are headed by directors, many of whom have been speaking out individually about the virus, and offering thoughts about its treatment, and the potential for vaccines for its prevention.
That’s their right, but it can get confusing. I strongly believe that it would be better if the United States had an official medical board, headed by a distinguished physician or scientist, who would be the one official spokesperson for medical sciences in the federal government.
Hopefully that issue will be addressed soon. The odds are that this is not the last medical crisis – or even pandemic – in our nation’s future.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMasters Distinguished Professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University.