When Dr. Puthiery Va was growing up in Rochester, New York, her mother told her about the kindness of health care workers while their family was living at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. Those stories inspired her to work in public health, a career that’s led to her appointment this week as director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Va’s family fled Cambodia during turbulent times, stopping at a refugee camp in Thailand, where Va was born and her family lived in the early 1980s before coming to the United States when she was nearly 2 years old. The Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime claimed the lives of 1.5 million to 2 million people in the mid- to late 1970s.

Dr. Puthiery Va will become director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Aug. 28. Photo courtesy of Maine Department of Health and Human Services

Va, 43, will start her new job on Aug. 28, replacing Dr. Nirav Shah, who is now principal deputy director at the U.S. CDC. The Mills administration announced Va’s hiring Thursday.

Va is currently director of the Division of Public Health with the Indian Health Service’s Navajo Area Chinle Service Unit in Chinle, Arizona.

Va, in a phone interview on Friday, said her family initially came to the United States from the refugee camp to live with a sponsor family in Louisiana. After about a year, her family moved to Rochester, where her parents worked in plastics manufacturing.

Despite the horrors that her family endured – Va said her older brother died during the ordeal – the stories her mother, Ponee Chom, told her were ones of people helping people.


“The stories that she shared were so positive,” Va said. “She talked about how in the refugee camp how amazing the health care workers were, the nurses, the doctors, the Red Cross, all the immunizations we got. She always said that those people sustained our family. I held that very close to me, and I wanted to be one of those people.”

Marpheen Chann, president and founder of Khmer Maine, a grassroots organization for Cambodians who have settled in Maine, said they are “thrilled to have a member of the Cambodian American community serving at such a level here in Maine. Dr. Puthiery Va’s educational, professional and personal background, as well as her work with Indigenous communities, are important experiences that inform her leadership – specifically to address public health disparities among Black, Brown, Indigenous and immigrant communities here in Maine.”

Va earned her medical degree from the University of New England in Maine, and she worked in New York City and for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before her stint with the Indian Health Service.


Va said observations she made about Mainers and how the Mills administration “supports the advancement of public health” figured in her decision to accept the job with the state CDC.

“I saw a great opportunity to step into a place that’s supportive of public health,” Va said. “I saw how engaged the Maine people were in protecting one another.”


During the COVID-19 pandemic, Maine had one of the highest percentages of people getting immunized in the nation, with about 85% fully vaccinated.

Va said she needs to learn more about Maine’s public health system before coming up with specific recommendations for improvements, but the pandemic taught the nation the “importance of being prepared, and being able to respond and take action.”

She also wants to make sure access to public health is equitable for all groups, including traditionally underserved communities such as the new Mainers who are immigrating from Africa.

Matt Wellington, associate director of the Maine Public Health Association, which advocates for public health improvements across the state, said the Maine CDC director is a vital role.

“It’s refreshing and exciting to have someone back in that leadership spot,” Wellington said. “We’re excited to see where she takes the Maine CDC.”

Wellington said one of the priorities of his association is to have a robust public health infrastructure in place across the state, so that people living in rural areas, and people from all demographic backgrounds can have access to public health services.

He said environmental health, climate change, air pollution, exposure to PFAS chemicals and racism as a public health crisis are all topics that need to be addressed in the coming years.
Darlene Chee, CEO of the Chinle Service Unit of the Indian Health Service, where Va currently works, said in a statement that “Dr. Va has consistently shown her dedication and commitment to the Navajo people.”
“She has been focused on improving access to community-based preventive and clinical health care services, continually bringing positive change and health outcomes in her time here,” Chee said.

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