Dr. Tedd Ellerbrock, chief of the HIV Care and Treatment Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has played a vital role in building, expanding and improving the U.S.-led program that provides medicine and assistance to more than 13 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS. In a conversation with Tom Fox, Ellerbrock talked about the importance of the CDC’s mission, the dedication of the staff and his own journey to bring modern medicine to the developing world. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You have been involved in PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, since its inception in 2003. Can you tell me about the program and your role?
PEPFAR is an effort to try to fight the AIDS epidemic worldwide. This has been a very long endeavor that has required work by thousands of people. More than 73 percent of the staff members in CDC’s Division of Global HIV and Tuberculosis are responding in more than 50 countries working towards epidemic control and sustainability. There are 36 million people in the world infected and 18 million people on drug therapy. PEPFAR is supporting more than 13 million of those people. We have had enormous success. Since the inception of PEPFAR, the number of deaths has dropped dramatically and if we can continue this effort for another five or six years, we may have as many as a dozen countries where we have epidemic control. My responsibility is to lead a team of experts at CDC as consultants providing support for treatment in 41 countries.
What brought you to the CDC and fight against HIV/AIDS?
It all started when I was in Peace Corps in the Philippines in 1968 and 1969. I had an epiphany that I wanted to become a doctor and provide modern medicine to the developing world. Some CDC staff found me working in a remote part of Bangladesh in 1979 and invited me to come to CDC where I arrived in 1986. I've been here ever since. I found a group of unusually gifted people who shared my vision of spending their lives helping other people through public health.
What has your experience at CDC and the global HIV/AIDS effort taught you about leadership?
All of the people working at CDC are totally dedicated to making a contribution and ensuring their work is successful. So it’s difficult to talk about leadership here. Everybody’s a leader in a way. And everybody has a role.
A lot of organizations aspire to create effective teams, but they get mired down in who makes the decisions and has the authority. What can explain the CDC’s effective use of teamwork?
The only thing that we’re interested in is having an impact on public health and positively impacting the lives of the people who we are treating. That is our goal. And everything that we do is data driven. What we end up doing are things that are the best ideas that we can support with data.
What has your work fighting HIV/AIDS meant to you personally and professionally?
When I started in 1990, there was only one drug to treat HIV/AIDS. People could get better for six months, but eventually they became resistant to the drug and they would die. I remember walking into waiting rooms seeing 40 or 50 people and thinking they’re all going to die and there’s nothing I can do about it. I often think about them, about all those people who died and the fact that since then, I have had an opportunity to be involved in saving not 1,000 or 2,000 people, but millions. This is deeply personal to me. I think of those people from the early days all the time.
How has CDC evolved over the years?
CDC recognizes that global health security is good business for the United States. Because we live in an increasingly interconnected world of travel and trade, the most efficient way to protect Americans and U.S. interests is to help stop the spread of disease at the source. Another thing that's really noticeable is there are far more women involved. We also have more people from different backgrounds and different races. We are more representative of the United States and now have input from many more different perspectives.
What would you tell young people about government service and working at the CDC?
You give up some things working for the federal government. You never become rich. You never become famous. At the CDC, we take on major problems that states or countries or the nation bring to us, and we form large teams to go out and solve these issues. Once we solve one problem, another problem comes in and then another. But the thing that keeps us there is we can see the impact we're having on people's lives.
Are you optimistic about our country's ability to handle the next AIDS epidemic or whatever is thrown at us?
Yes. Look at Ebola. We were deeply involved in stopping that epidemic. CDC deployed more than 2,400 staff to help contain the outbreak. Look at SARS. I think we're very good at this. As long as we continue to receive adequate support, we'll be able to address existing and take on the new challenges.
Do you think about the next wave of people coming into CDC will maintain a culture of excellence?
A very important part of CDC is training new people. It's a key component of our institution. We recruit about 75 new doctors every year and put them through a two-year fellowship, and those who are really excellent stay at the institution. We're constantly training and supporting people, including the secretaries, administrators and budgetary staff, because they are all part of our teams. So we work very hard at not only recruiting, but training and supporting people over the long term. That's what makes the institution effective.