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Fight against disease a personal one for Adair
Jeff Adair.jpg
Polio survivor Jeff Adair has adapted to his condition and spent 36 years in government service, the last 16 with the Centers for Disease Control. - photo by Bill Zechman

Jeff Adair, a senior executive with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one of the official guardians of the last remaining polio virus in America. The virus samples, kept for research purposes, are quarantined under extreme security conditions at one of the CDC laboratories in Atlanta.

The last time the crippling disease struck an American was in 1979. Thanks largely to the work of the CDC, Rotary International, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, only a handful of polio cases remain in the world — in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  

The two Rotary Clubs in McMinnville have long been major contributors to the global polio eradication campaign.  

As guest speaker at The Rotary Club of McMinnville on Thursday, Adair highlighted the work of his vast agency in promoting human health and safety and in monitoring emerging threats like Ebola, pandemic flu, West Nile virus and biological terrorism, to name just a few.  In addition to direct health protective and recovery services, the federal agency is also a world leader in medical and scientific research and education.

For the Lawrence County native, maintaining the tightest security over the experimental polio viruses is more than a professional preoccupation.

At 17 months, he was stricken with paralytic poliomyelitis, followed by months of care and treatment in Vanderbilt Hospital. With the unsparing support and encouragement of his parents and caregivers, he adapted to his condition and went on to graduate from Lawrence County High School and the University of North Alabama.

With a total of 36 years in U.S. government service, the last 16 with the CDC, Adair is deputy director of the 11,000-employee agency’s Office of Safety, Security and Asset Management.   Nearly 85 percent of the institution’s $12 billion budget goes to grants to other organizations supporting the CDC mission, including direct health services, research and disease surveillance and analysis.

“We manage everything from office space [including some 5.5 million square feet in 12 buildings in the Atlanta area] to some of the most complex laboratories in the world,” he told Rotarians. The engineering and design of the CDC’s new $480 million lab is so challenging that the facility is not expected to be completed before 2026, he noted.

Responding to a question from the audience, Adair stressed that financial management, integrity and accountability at the agency are among the top priorities.   

“There’s not a lot of waste. We work pretty close to the bone.”

Asked how the CDC tries to anticipate new and undefined hazards to American health and safety, he answered, “It’s hard to say what the next outbreak will be, but we can be sure it will be something.”

Adair, who is brother-in-law of Warren County Industrial Board executive director Don Alexander, expands on those and other topics when he appears this week on public radio WCPI’s FOCUS interview series. The half-hour conversation airs on 91.3 FM Tuesday at 5 p.m., Wednesday at 5 a.m., Thursday at 1 p.m., and Friday at 1 a.m.