HOPE Inc. expands from prevention and education to clinic services

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ST. THOMAS - When HOPE Inc. started 14 years ago, it operated from a small one-bedroom apartment in Anna's Retreat.

Today, it operates from a multi-story mint green building soon to be offering a wide range of treatment services for those suffering from HIV, AIDS, diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

HOPE Inc. started only as a prevention and education group focusing on HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, and AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. In recent years, it has begun fighting other common conditions in the territory.

Starting June 1, HOPE Inc. will take on another role.

Not only will it function as a prevention and education organization, but it will begin serving as a clinic for those seeking treatment for one of the conditions that HOPE Inc. addresses.

"As we have grown, the request for more services from us has grown," said Ivy Moses, HOPE Inc. CEO and founder.

The clinic has hired a part-time physician and is shifting one of its nine employees into a clinical care coordinator position, according to HOPE Inc. spokeswoman Lyña Fredericks.

In its 14 years, the organization has assisted about 3,000 people each year. Services provided have included testing for HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; screening for glucose, blood pressure and body mass index; referring patients to the appropriate health care providers and offering programs to educate the community about common conditions in the territory.

In recent years, HOPE Inc. has offered classes to women and children and a new component will be a men's health program.

"Men historically are reserved in accessing health care," said Sen. Clarence Payne III, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals, Human Services and Veterans' Affairs and also a new board member for HOPE Inc.

Payne said that women more often seek out medical help, whereas men find it difficult to ask for help, said Payne, who is a social worker by practice.

"We will have to take HOPE to the barber shops, the mechanic shops and to the sporting events," Payne said.

While HOPE Inc. does not have to reach out to the community as much as it used to, it will remain one of the group's strategies in spreading health to the community, Moses said. The center now attracts plenty of clients without seeking them out, she said.

Many of the local organizations also are very familiar with the work of HOPE Inc., Moses said, so they often will send people whose needs can be met by HOPE to the center.

"It definitely increased my knowledge about medical care in the territory," said Tito Morales, a HOPE Inc. board member. "I didn't know how many people were infected with AIDS, and how many young people were infected with AIDS."

The territory has one of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the nation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly 700 people cumulatively have been infected with HIV in the territory, according to the center's most recent breakdown at the end of 2010. Nearly 400 people had reached the third stage, or AIDS, by 2011. The reports did not include how many of those people had died, or were currently living with HIV or AIDS.

The V.I. Health Department did not respond to requests for more recent information about HIV and AIDS.

"Culturally, it's not something we speak about," Fredericks said. "With the stigma, it's hard to even open up the discussion."

Many more people likely are infected than are aware in the territory, according to Moses, because many people do not think they need to get tested, or they do not want to.

"Most of the people think that it's just the young people, but it spans everyone," Moses said. "We have issues with monogamy in the territory, and that assists with the spread."

HIV is a lifelong virus that is acquired through the exchange of bodily fluids, namely through blood or secretions exchanged during sexual contact, according to the CDC's website.

The virus eventually can develop into AIDS, which damages the immune system and makes the carrier vulnerable to infections and infection-related cancers called opportunistic illnesses. Without treatment, those who have AIDS on average are expected to live one year, according to the CDC.

About 50,000 people become infected with HIV each year in the United States, the CDC reported.

The most common way of transmission is through men having sex with other men, according to the CDC, which stated that about 63 percent of new cases fall within that category. The second highest demographic is men having sex with women.

The population most affected is black people, the CDC reported. While blacks represent approximately 14 percent of the U.S. population, the latest CDC estimates show that they account for 44 percent of all new infections in the United States each year as well as almost half of all people living with HIV.

In their lives, approximately one in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV, as will one in 32 black women, the CDC reported.

For more information about HIV and AIDS, as well as other conditions, visit www.cdc.gov or contact the V.I. Health Department. To contact HOPE Inc., call 777-1612.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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