Merck & Co. said yesterday it hired Julie Gerberding, a former director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to lead its vaccine business.

Gerberding will run the pharmaceutical company's $5 billion a year vaccine operation, which is based in West Point, Pa., in Montgomery County. The unit, one of Merck's fastest-growing businesses, includes the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil and shingles inoculation Zostavax.

The Whitehouse Station, N.J., company said she would start on Jan. 25.

Gerberding was head of the CDC, which is based in Atlanta, from 2002 until she resigned on Jan. 20 when the Obama administration took office.

Among the CDC's responsibilities is to set guidelines on which vaccines should be routinely given to patients. The agency also negotiates contracts with drugmakers for the federally funded Vaccines for Children Program, which provides free vaccinations to low-income youngsters.

"As a preeminent authority in public health, infectious diseases and vaccines, Dr. Gerberding is the ideal choice to lead Merck's engagement with organizations around the world that share our commitment to the use of vaccines to prevent disease and save lives," company chief executive officer Richard T. Clark said in a statement.

Merck has been struggling to increase sales of Gardasil, which declined 22 percent in the third quarter as the shot for cervical cancer didn't catch on with older girls.

The Food and Drug Administration on Oct. 16 cleared the vaccine for males, ages 9 to 26, to prevent genital warts. But the immunization committee of the Centers for Disease Control said the drug should be optional for boys not part of the approved childhood vaccination schedule.

Gerberding, 54, received a medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and master's of public health from the University of California, Berkeley.

Merck's former head of vaccines, Margaret McGlynn, retired Nov. 1 after having led the vaccine business since 2005.