The U.S. surgeon general acts as the nation’s top health spokesperson but has yet to weigh in on concerns regarding the spread of Ebola or enterovirus D68. The reason is simple: There is no surgeon general. President Barack Obama’s nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, 37, has yet to be confirmed by Congress.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the "surgeon general's warning" found on cigarette packages, but the office goes beyond advising the U.S. public on best health practices. The surgeon general supervises the 6,700 members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which can be deployed in a health emergency and reports to the assistant secretary of health. The surgeon general can also lead public discourse on important topics, which is what former surgeon general C. Everett Koop did in the 1980s.
Koop, who passed away at the age of 96 in 2013, served as surgeon general from 1981 to 1989 and championed AIDS awareness, sex education, dietary concerns and a "smoke-free nation." Koop published an AIDS report in 1986 and later mailed 100 million AIDS pamphlets to homes in 1988.
Obama appointed Regina Benjamin to the Office of the Surgeon General in 2009. Benjamin served four years before resigning in 2013 with an emphasis on obesity, diet and nutrition. "Under Dr. Benjamin’s leadership, implementation of the National Prevention Strategy (2011) became a reality, providing an unprecedented opportunity to shift the nation from a focus on sickness and disease to one based on wellness and prevention," reads Benjamin's biography on the surgeon general's website.
Rear Admiral Boris D. Lushniak has served as acting surgeon general while Murthy's confirmation has been delayed. Obama's choice of Murthy angered Republicans, as the doctor advocated for the Affordable Care Act and his anti-gun stance has drawn criticism from the National Rifle Association, the Boston Globe reported.
"The right surgeon general could be a unifying force," Richard Carmona, a former surgeon general during George W. Bush's presidency, said to the Boston Globe. Murthy co-founded Doctors for America, which has more than 16,000 members, and served as an instructor at Harvard Medical School and as a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Murthy's November 2013 nomination has not made it past the Senate amid criticism from Republicans, while some Democrats were hesitant to support Obama's nominee due to the midterm elections.
After two nurses contracted Ebola while treating a patient in Dallas, Obama named Ron Klain, a two-time vice presidential chief of staff, as the "Ebola czar" to lead the federal response to the virus. But many feel a surgeon general would be better suited in addressing the public and dispelling any misinformation. More than 90,000 people have signed a petition to confirm Murthy as surgeon general.
"The surgeon general would be playing a vital role as a voice speaking directly to the American people," said David Satcher, surgeon general from 1998 to 2002.