Dr. Alfredo Vergara, the new public health director for the city of Portland, previously served as country director for the U.S. CDC in Mozambique, where he focused on combatting HIV and the AIDS epidemic. He has a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Iowa. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As the head of operations for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Mozambique, Dr. Alfredo Vergara spent years fighting to contain HIV and the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

He also worked to combat malaria and improve public health surveillance. And he responded to COVID-19 in a country where the pandemic looked very different than in the United States, with a younger population and more time spent outdoors helping to mitigate cases.

It might seem odd to go from that job to becoming the director of public health in a small New England city thousands of miles away, but for Vergara it made sense.

“I wanted to be on the front lines,” he said, adding that he likes being in places where he can see how his work affects the community.

Vergara, who took over as Portland’s public health director in August, hopes to have an impact by putting a dent in some of the city’s longstanding problems – homelessness, substance use and addiction – as well as improving access for vulnerable populations, including new Mainers. He replaces Bob Fowler, who left in November 2021, and will earn a salary of $106,153.

Vergara also wants to expand clinic hours and improve coordination with other providers and community organizations. And he hopes to prepare the city for the potential of future pandemics or disease outbreaks. “I want to make a good effort to set up a team and train them in case something else comes along,” said Vergara, 60.


He said many of Portland’s challenges in public health are similar to what the rest of the country faces. The big one being a lack of funding.

There may not be an easy fix, Vergara said, but he hopes that as a leader he can find good staff, then entice them to stay long-term with the right training and opportunities for upward mobility.

“A lot of public health is about context,” Vergara said. “If you don’t know the context and if you don’t learn it and stay with it and build relationships with the community, it’s more difficult.”


When he came across the Portland job posting, applied and started talking to people here, Vergara said it seemed like the right fit. “We hope to stay here the rest of our lives and integrate into the community,” said Vergara, who moved with his wife, Sarah Sheldon, who was hired by the city’s public health department as its immunization coordinator.

Part of Portland’s draw was its proximity to Boston, where Sheldon has family. Vergara said they wanted to be close by, but in a smaller community.


Before accepting the job, he had only been to Portland once, as part of a 2017 trip to Acadia National Park. Vergara was pleasantly surprised at how friendly people were as he and his wife walked around the city with their two children, whom Vergara and his wife adopted from Mozambique.

Both children are grown and away at college now, but Vergara said they also plan to spend time in Portland.

“That’s also one of the things that attracted us,” Vergara said. “We were thinking we want to live in a place where the kids don’t feel completely out of place, and Portland does have significant diversity, so that makes it easier for them.”

Dr. Alfredo Vergara, the new public health director for the city of Portland, talks to Tina Pettingill, Portland’s deputy director of health and human services, at the Portland Community Free Clinic last month. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He and his wife have been posting on Nextdoor, introducing themselves to the community as they’ve settled into an apartment – though they’ve also been looking for a house – and have taken in a teenage asylum seeker to live with them.

Vergara said it was his wife who found out about the girl’s need. They were happy to help, he said, downplaying their generosity. “It’s really not that much of a big deal,” Vergara said, though he joked that he worried their children might feel displaced. “We talked about it with them, though, and they are fine,” Vergara said.

As public health director, Vergara heads one of four divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services – the city’s largest department.


Within the public health division there are five clinical programs – the immunization program, maternal and child health, a sexually transmitted disease clinic, the Portland free clinic and the syringe exchange program. The division also oversees other preventive programs and initiatives including tobacco use prevention, healthy eating and active living, substance use prevention, and lead poisoning prevention.

“It’s a big scope of a job and we had a really great group of candidates, but to have somebody with global health experience, a Ph.D. in epidemiology and the type of perspective he brings to us, it’s unique,” said Tina Pettingill, the deputy director of health and human services.

The city decided to move its social services and public health offices, including its health clinic, to the building at 39 Forest Ave. in 2021.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

There’s a lot of work to be done. Last year, DHHS’ public health and social services divisions moved into a new space at 39 Forest Ave., and Pettingill said it’s been an ongoing effort to make sure services and people are working together and that the department is capitalizing on the shared space.

She said the city also has been challenged by an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers who come with unique health challenges. They often don’t speak English or know how to navigate American health systems.

“Even though we’re a little city we have global and big health challenges,” Pettingill said.



Vergara grew up in Venezuela and came to the U.S. on a scholarship when he was 18 to study biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa. He returned to Venezuela, but couldn’t find a job and came back to Iowa to get his master’s degree and then a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Iowa’s Department of Preventive Medicine.

He began working for the CDC in 1993, and knew he eventually wanted to work overseas. In 2000, the agency was looking to open an office in Mozambique. Vergara, who had done volunteer work in Africa and was intrigued by the job, applied and got it.

He was there for six years before returning to the U.S. and taking a job teaching public health at Vanderbilt University. He also worked to grow the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health, an opportunity that allowed him to travel to Central America, South America and Africa for research and collaboration.

Vergara and his wife wanted their children to understand where they came from, so eventually he started looking for ways to go back to Mozambique. In 2013, he took a job as a director for health systems at the country’s U.S. CDC office, and in 2016 he was named country director for a second time.

Much of Vergara’s work in Mozambique was focused on combatting HIV and the AIDS epidemic. Peter Young, the associate director for science for the CDC in Mozambique, worked with Vergara during his time there and said Vergara was known for his focus on improving health systems rather than looking for isolated solutions, like one-time funding for an HIV treatment program.

“It’s more about trying to look at how things are integrated across systems and how can we respond to challenges in the future,” Young said. “That’s one of the things he’s done and that he’s known for doing.”

Young said he worried a little about the transition when he found out Vergara would be moving to Maine, especially when he contemplated how much colder it would be. But he said his former colleague has always been adaptable.

“I think he’ll do fine in his new role,” Young said.

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