2004 Citizen Services

Joseph A. Foster

Coordinated the federal legal response to contain outbreak of monkeypox, and also helped manage the federal legal response to SARS and West Nile Virus occurrences.

Until recently, monkeypox was largely contained on the African continent and it had never been observed in the United States. Consequently, fears of a monkeypox outbreak in our country were minimal. That changed in June 2003 when several people within the United States became infected with this rare but potentially dangerous disease. That was when Joseph Foster got a phone call.

Usually when there are public health crises such as the outbreak of a disease, medical experts are the public face of the federal response. But the reality is that the actual steps needed to contain and eradicate diseases, often require as much legal as medical expertise. Within the Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Branch, senior attorney Joseph Foster is at the table whenever an infectious disease outbreak occurs, a bioterror event threatens or the health and safety of the nation is in question. As the Department’s primary legal counsel for CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, Foster oversees the vast and complex network of laws and regulations pertaining to quarantines and embargo orders. When it became apparent that monkeypox had arrived in the country via African rodents that had been imported into the United States to be sold as pets, the need for a quick response became clear. The Department turned to Foster to help construct the correct, and most sensible, response.

Working with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foster coordinated CDC’s legal response to the monkeypox outbreak, including the drafting and implementation of an embargo order and subsequent interim final rule banning the import of certain African rodents. The order was in place within a month after monkeypox had been diagnosed. 

Foster’s role in the containment of disease is not limited to monkeypox. With 75 percent of all new infectious diseases—including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), bird flu and West Nile virus—coming from animals, government regulation of incoming species is crucial. And, in fact, Foster played a part in managing the legal responses to both the SARS and West Nile virus epidemics.

But Foster’s important job involves more than employing bans on implicated animals around the world. He has also worked on legal issues surrounding bioterror threats, including the development and implementation of legislation to provide liability protection of those involved with production and administration of smallpox vaccine. The Department is directly involved in issues ranging from the development of vaccines to the inoculation of first responders to general bioterror preparedness. When the nation discovered anthrax attacks were possible, and as it began to prepare for the chance of a smallpox outbreak, Foster was there to ensure that the legal framework was in place to assure that vaccines were ready, new drugs were being investigated and patients’ confidentiality was protected.

Through some of the nation’s most demanding public health challenges, Joseph Foster has consistently and creatively demonstrated a great commitment to the nation’s health.