D.C. AIDS director abruptly resigns

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

After working to turn around a District agency that one city official described as "dysfunctional bordering on comical" before her arrival, Shannon L. Hader has abruptly resigned as director of the HIV/AIDS administration, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced Tuesday.

Hader's resignation is effective July 15, days after she is scheduled to return from personal leave to undergo unspecified surgery. The administration's chief medical officer, Nnemdi Kamanu Elias, will serve as interim director, Fenty said. Hader's three-year stint made her the longest-serving director in almost a decade, as other leaders came and went amid criticism for poor management and incompetence.

Although Hader is departing to praise, the announcement of her resignation struck some as strange. The mayor's news release announcing Elias's ascension to the top job did not mention Hader. In his remarks, Pierre Vigilance, director of the city's Department of Health, barely acknowledged the woman who had addressed the District's top health priority, fueling speculation that there had been tension between them.

Hader's most ardent supporter in city government, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), did not attend the news conference. Catania said he had a prior engagement, and he would not address speculation that he was deeply upset at Fenty and Vigilance for allowing Hader to resign and accept a position as vice president of a health organization, the Futures Group.

"Her loss is catastrophic," Catania said. When Hader arrived in August 2007, the AIDS administration was a laughingstock, beset with financial problems that caused it to miss payments to agencies that cared for the sick. A Washington Post investigation last year found that some groups contracted to provide services failed to get a business license and file tax returns. Others spent lavishly on travel.

"There's no question that we dug ourselves into a very substantial hole," Catania said. "The paper largely focused on issues that predated her arrival. There's no question that she was working to change that."

Hader, a native of Seattle, became director a year after moving to the District from Zimbabwe, where she was an epidemiologist for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Zimbabwe Global AIDS Program.

As the administration's director, she focused on gathering evidence to show who was infected with AIDS in the District. That led to the groundbreaking 2008 Epidemiology Update last March, showing that 3 percent of the city's population had tested positive for HIV/AIDS, among the worst rates in the nation and surpassing the 1 percent threshold for a general epidemic.

The findings focused national attention on the city as the CDC and the National Institutes of Health rushed to provide financial aid to address the problem. The Global Business Coalition named the District as one of a few cities to which it would devote the resources of corporate partners such as Pfizer, Nike, Facebook and the National Basketball Association.

A. Toni Young, director of the Community Working Group, which tests city residents and distributes condoms, said Hader knew how to analyze data and make a case that put heterosexual infection on the radar screen.

"I think it's going to be a challenge without her leadership," Young said.

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