In 2020, there were 798 people living with HIV in the territory. The opening day of the territory’s first HIV conference — the USVI Health and HIV Equity Summit — was attended by around 100 people at the University of the Virgin Islands and others participated through Zoom. The purpose of the summit is to eliminate the stigmas surrounding HIV, and ultimately the virus too, according to organizers.
For two days, topics are being presented in person and virtually. Streamed sessions include welcome comments (both days); a panel discussion and presentation on cultural responsiveness and access to care; biomedical interventions; co-creating safe spaces for person-centered care and updates on the HIV vaccine.
Live sessions include: deconstructing stigma and inclusivity; health literacy/language; justice/implicit bias; biomedical interventions – innovations for getting to zero; HIV screening, treatment and prevention breakout discussions; and, affirming sexual and gender identity in the healthcare setting.
“We see, with all the tools that we have for prevention and management bringing HIV to zero in the territory. That is the ultimate goal. We also want people, in the setting – living with it – to know that you don’t die from it anymore,” Dr. Tai Hunte-Ceasar, the territory’s infectious disease director told the Source. “We have medicine to treat, and we have medicine to prevent HIV.”
Hunte-Ceasar said the territory has everything it needs to treat, manage and prevent HIV, but stigma gets in the way. Some people are not receptive to hearing about HIV and some patients are reluctant to get treatment. More education is necessary from all aspects of the community – leaders and health care workers. She wants HIV testing to be as normal as screening for high blood pressure.
If the stigma can be reduced, more resources will be available for dealing with the virus, Hunte-Ceasar said.
Jason Henry, territorial director for DOH’s Communicable Diseases Division and session moderator, said the overarching goal for the territory is to get HIV numbers to zero by 2030. The ongoing goal is for 90 percent of the population to be tested, 90 percent of the infected to receive treatment and 90 percent of the treated to reduce their viral load.
Henry also wants people to take away from the summit how to be culturally responsive to individuals who may be different from some of us – such as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Treating hesitant patients is important because some are afraid to access care because they associate HIV with doing something wrong. HIV treatment is free in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Henry also hopes testing becomes as common as other health screenings.
The event is being hosted by the V.I. Health Department’s Chronic Diseases Division, the Primary Care Development Corporation, and the Northeast Caribbean AIDS Education and Training Center.
Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said federal partners attending will take the results and focus of the meeting back to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Thursday, the headline speaker was Stan Phillip, a native St. Thomian and branch chief for the CDC. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., Senate Vice President Novelle Francis and UVI President David Hall welcomed the group with Encarnacion, Henry, and Robert Thomas, prevention coordinator for the CDD outlining goals of the conference.
Attendees and participants were fully vaccinated and everyone wore a mask.