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Diabetes Takes Its Toll in Territory

Sen. Ray Fonseca chaired Wednesday’s committee meeting. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

Julia Sheen, executive director of the Diabetes Center of Excellence, testified Wednesday at the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services hearing that the territory has a dialysis crisis, and a high percentage of the territory’s population is susceptible to diabetes.

She said people of color have a higher rate of the disease than Caucasians, closer to 14 percent to the Caucasian rate of 12 percent. She said pockets of poverty experience even higher rates. Although all the data is not available, she said the number of Virgin Islanders suffering from the disease is more than 12,000.

The Diabetes Center of Excellence, a non-profit organization, opened in 2020 to address the diabetes situation in the Virgin Islands through health promotion, patient education, treatment, and research.

Other speakers joined her in emphasizing that education was vital to managing the increasing number of residents who have diabetes. Also advocated were efforts from government officials, public institutions, and individuals to pitch in to prevent the disease and treat those already suffering.

Sheen said critical factors in preventing the disease were a healthy diet, exercise, and the avoidance of obesity.

Sen. Ray Fonseca noted that efforts to prevent the disease were “much cheaper” than treating the disease. Diabetes can lead to blindness, strokes, amputations, kidney failure, and death.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens suggested that the government could contribute to the fight by providing areas where residents could exercise freely. He pointed out that the demolition of the Arthur Richard School on the west end of St. Croix also meant the removal of a gym, a ballfield, and a tennis court used by many residents of the area.

Sheen testified that 71 percent of the people with diabetes in the territory did not eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables in their diets, 35 percent of them were obese, and 57 percent did not get the minimal amount of exercise.

Gittens said it was difficult to tell people what and how much they should eat. He added that he was limiting some of his bad eating habits for his health.

One doctor said the first thing a parent should do if their child is overweight is limit sugary drinks. She said that if a child was obese at five or six, the chances were that they would be obese as an adult. She also recommended limiting screen time and encouraging exercise.

Fonseca said that for 219 residents, diabetes had reached the stage where dialysis was required. This means that they must spend four hours on a machine twice a week.

Sens. Fonseca, Gittens, Marvin Blyden, Diane Capehart, Samuel Carrion, Novelle Francis, Donna Frett-Gregory, Marise James, and Milton Potter attended to receive an update on the challenges of managing diabetes in the territory.

The Diabetes Center of Excellence is located on St. Croix at Princess Health Center, Second Floor, 4040 La Grande Princess, and it is negotiating a lease to open an office on St. Thomas.


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