Then, he recommended to President Gerald Ford the launch of a national vaccination campaign to prevent illness and death. The criticized campaign was halted in December of that year, though, when 32 vaccine recipients died. Others contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. The epidemic never materialized, and the doctor lost a coveted post he’d held since 1966. He was fired on Feb. 7, 1977.
But respect for the scientist remained strong in the public health community, said Elvin Hilyer, a retired CDC official from Dahlonega.
“We were faced with a potential catastrophe, so the CDC did what it always does,” he said. “It brought together the best minds in science and medicine to advise him on what to do. [The vaccination campaign] was the most responsible move one could make, given what we knew at the time.”
On Monday, Dr. David Judson Sencer died of suspected heart failure at Emory University Hospital. He was 86. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
Dr. Sencer started out in a county health department in Idaho as a tuberculosis epidemiologist. He became CDC director in 1966 and was the agency’s longest-serving top official. The scientist held various positions after he left the health agency, and for four years was New York City’s health commissioner during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, according to The Associated Press.
Locally, he was a senior editor for the Global Health Chronicles project, a joint effort of Emory University Libraries, the Rollins School of Public Health and the CDC. Its purpose: to look at public health efforts to prevent, control and eradicate global diseases. He helped found Emory’s school of public health.
“Dave Sencer was a community-oriented person in the sense that he worked for the benefit of the American people,” Mr. Hilyer said. “A lot of the things he faced were unknowns, but he didn’t have a manual to go by all the time.”
Dr. Donald R. Hopkins remembers the doctor’s steady support for the CDC’s global smallpox eradication program that successfully occurred during his leadership.
“He even allowed his deputy to go to India for several months to help support that effort,” said Dr. Hopkins, vice president of Carter Center health programs. “He was very supportive of young people, not just me, and would walk the halls to see how everything was going.”
Whenever the media asked Dr. Sencer about the swine flu campaign, the Harvard alum’s answer often mirrored this response given in 2005 to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Given the knowledge we had at that time, I think we made the right decision,” the Michigan native said. “We had not had a pandemic since 1968. We had a new strain. We had a susceptible population. We had time to make vaccine. If we really believed in preventive medicine, we had no choice.”
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Jane Blood Sencer of Atlanta; two daughters, Dr. Susan Sencer-Mura of Minneapolis and Ann Sencer of Atlanta; a son, Stephen D. Sencer of Atlanta, and six grandchildren.
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