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CU Department of Medicine Infectious-Disease Expert is Named to CDC Advisory Board

Joshua Barocas, MD, will advise federal officials on looming threats to public health.

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Written by Mark Harden on March 12, 2024

A University of Colorado Department of Medicine faculty member has been appointed to a national science committee advising the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on infectious-disease issues.

Joshua Barocas, MD, an associate professor in the divisions of Infectious Diseases and General Internal Medicine, is now one of 17 members of the CDC’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) for infectious diseases. His appointment took effect in March.

The panel advises CDC Director Mandy Cohen and Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases (DDID) Jay Butler, as well as the heads of the CDC’s three infectious disease national centers. It also advises U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra, whose department includes the CDC.

The BSC offers advice on “strategies, goals, and priorities for the programs and research within the national centers and monitors the overall strategic direction and focus of DDID and the national centers,” the CDC says.

BSC members include academic, clinical, and public-agency disease experts; representatives of other CDC advisory committees; and one official each from the national public-health agencies of Mexico and Canada.

Barocas’ research and clinical practice focuses on improving health outcomes for patients with infectious diseases, substance-use disorders, and other issues. He came to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in 2021. Previously he was on the medical faculty at Boston University and Harvard Medical School and was a fellow in infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

We spoke with Barocas about his CDC appointment and his role on the BSC.

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How did your appointment come about?

It came about through my work with the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). For the last few years, I served as the chair of the Public Health Committee for IDSA. IDSA leadership recommended me for a position on the BSC, and that was accepted through all levels of government up to the secretary of Health and Human Services, who signed off on it.

What is your role on the BSC?

This is a good way for an infectious disease clinician with a public health focus to advise government leaders on what are likely to be among the biggest threats to public health going forward: emerging infectious diseases, pandemics, and the intersection with human health. And in this era of misinformation, it is vital that we have experts providing evidence and data to government leaders in hopes of ensuring that evidence-based decisions are being made.

Do you have a certain term? How often do you meet?

More details are coming out as we speak, but my understanding is I serve for two years with the possibility of extending beyond that. The meetings will be three times a year, with potentially more as needed. The meetings are open to the public unless the secretary of HHS has decided that a given meeting should not be, but I think that transparency in how we’re advising HHS and the CDC is really important.

What are some big issues that you expect will come up on the board?

One is respiratory viral diseases – COVID being one of them, as well as RSV and influenza. Another is antimicrobial resistance in both health care and non-health care settings. We have a nearly-dried-up antimicrobial pipeline for drug development, and rising rates of antimicrobial resistance.

Related to that, we are seeing enormous rises in certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. Part of this is making sure that drugs are in the right place and that we have adequate drug development. We have ways to prevent some of these STDs, but we also see emerging resistance, specifically with gonorrhea. These issues all have substantial overlap.

The usual suspects – such as HIV and tuberculosis – are a constant threat. And then there are zoonotic infections, or vector-born infections, things like Lyme disease and malaria that are transmitted through insects. As the climate keeps getting warmer, these infections are becoming threat all year round since mosquitos and other insects do not have to withstand frigid temperatures as often. We’re seeing U.S.-originated malaria as a result as well – incredibly concerning. So diseases that had shorter seasons, or that we haven’t had to deal with recently on our own soil, are now becoming huge issues because of climate change.

We’re in a presidential election year. What happens to your appointment if a new administration takes office in January?

Since it’s a chartered board of scientific advisors, it doesn’t matter who the president is. What changes is who gets our advice and whether or not they listen to it. The director of the CDC and the secretary of HHS can change.

My hope of hopes, as we emerge from two pandemics – Mpox and COVID – is that people like myself can help rebuild trust in public-health institutions by providing science- and evidence-based advice and recommendations and communicate it effectively.