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Thursday, July 18, 2024


The Virgin Islands ended up as a focus of controversy in the national media again last week. This time, however, it was neither tourism nor violence that prompted a small article in a Washington Post column called "In the Loop."
The article reported that ACT UP/D.C., a Washington-based gay rights and AIDS advocacy group, had criticized a group of AIDS service providers for their plans to hold a meeting on St. Thomas this week.
The criticism was mostly directed at the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is sponsoring the conference.
In a press release, ACT UP/D.C. officials expressed anger that the conference attendees would be using federal Ryan White CARE Act money earmarked for treatment services for AIDS patients "for travel and luxurious lodging expenses."
Wayne Turner, ACT UP/ D.C. spokesman, told the Source, "One again we have another conference which is simply a junket – an excursion for bureaucrats. They can hang out at an island resort and talk about AIDS treatment."
Turner is adamant that the Ryan White funds are earmarked to offer direct services to poor people with AIDS.
According to Ernest Hopkins, strategist for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Delegate Donna Christian-Christensen, who is a medical doctor, has been instrumental in securing significant increases in Title III planning grants for community-based organizations to attend conferences such as the one scheduled on St. Thomas starting Thursday night.
Christensen expressed frustration over the controversy. "There is a problem every time anyone wants to come here," she said. "It is perceived as a jaunt because they are coming to the V.I."
But, she added, "We have needs, too. The best way for us to get attention — because we don't have a vote — is by having people come here and put a face on the issues."
She said it was her understanding that local physicians had been invited to attend the conference training sessions but didn't know how much of a response there had been. She said some local doctors are still not comfortable dealing with AIDS. Attempts to reach anyone at HRSA to determine if local physicians would be attending failed.
Hopkins said he thinks Christensen "deserves a lot of credit for pushing the problem of HIV/AIDS in the Virgin Islands" to Health and Human Services.
The Ryan White CARE Fund has four purposes. The one for training, called Title III, provides, among other things, grants to existing facilities that provide HIV/AIDS outreach, Hopkins said. Because African-American and Hispanic communities have so few HIV specialists, he said, the Title III funds are especially important.
Hopkins defended the choice of the Virgin Islands as the conference site, saying the trip would offer participants "an opportunity to see what health care delivery really looks like on the ground in a developing area."
But Turner criticized this rationale, saying the conference was by invitation only and did not include people with AIDS.
The conference, to be held at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort, opens Thursday night and goes through Sunday, which is a free day. The agenda includes several technical workshops such as "Genotypic and Phenotypic Testing" and "Metabolic Impact of Antiretroviral Treatments" well as case study sessions.
About 150 people were expected to take part. Christensen said she has heard that a few decided not to attend in light the ACT UP criticism, but she could not confirm this was the case.
Hopkins said the annual conference, which is specifically for HIV direct care providers from small organizations, is important. The target audience is people who would never have the opportunity without support from HRSA funds to attend conferences for updates and to meet cohorts from other small organizations, he said.
Previous annual conferences were held Phoenix, Ariz,. and New Orleans, La.
The program begins at 6 p.m. Thursday with a reception. The keynote address, a review of new treatment data, is scheduled for 8:15 p.m.

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