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UVI Center Studying Minority Health Disparity Issues to Receive $6 Million in Continuing Grant Funding Over Five Years

The Caribbean Exploratory Research Center for Excellence (CERC), based in the School of Nursing at the University of the Virgin Islands, has received approval of an additional $6 million in federal funding over a five-year period from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

CERC Director and Principal Investigator Dr. Gloria Callwood said the continuing support gives the Center an opportunity to begin to really make a difference in health outcomes in the Virgin Islands. "I am very appreciative that the federal government saw fit to refund." She also noted the hard work of her staff at the Center. "I have a wonderful team. The success of the Center can be attributed to their hard and dedicated work."

Dr. Callwood said that the continued support, which was approved earlier this year, recognizes the value of programs and research projects developed during the Center's first five years - for which NIMHD provided an earlier grant of $7 million starting in 2007. Combined with an initial capacity-building grant, CERC will have been responsible, over the course of 13 years, for bringing $16 million into the territory. The money is used to provide research into critical minority health and health disparity issues that affect all Virgin Islanders.

At the CERC's 5th Annual Health Disparities Institute, held in October on St. Thomas, UVI Interim Provost Dr. Camille McKayle described the Center's work as an attempt to come to grips with a changing climate and a health environment in the Caribbean and beyond that reflects in local and national issues. "What's happening in CERC is critical to the Virgin Islands and to UVI," Dr. McKayle said. She called the Center's work compelling and worthwhile. "Getting the grant renewed is not an accident," McKayle said. "It shows that the efforts of CERC are recognized nationally as important work."

Virgin Islands Congresswoman Donna Christensen, also speaking at the annual institute, said the Center's work calls attention to the direct relationship between Virgin Islanders' health and the environment. "These experts will show that eliminating health disparities and achieving parity is a key environmental justice issue as well as a major public health priority," Christensen said. The institute's keynote speaker Dr. Terry Mills, Dean of Humanities and Social Science at Morehouse College, told attendees that the work of Centers such as CERC "inspires us to higher highs in terms of efforts and commitments to resolving what is basically a public health imperative to eliminate - not minimize - but eliminate disparities in health outcomes." He was speaking to scientists, policy makers, health care providers and researchers from around the country and the Virgin Islands, including several whose research was or is supported by CERC.

Another institute speaker, V.I. Senate President Ronald Russell, said the work of CERC "demonstrates to us that we are on the right track in the territory, especially regarding health care." Sen. Russell also added that "We, as policy makers, can look to you for the answers to set policy that could lead to social justice here in the Virgin Islands."

Over the past five years, CERC has sponsored a number of research projects including one compiling data for an intimate partner abuse study, and funded ongoing pilot studies in local populations on childhood obesity, diabetes and mental health. Two community research scholars are being mentored as they complete projects on violence in the Virgin Islands, and the experiences of persons diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It has also developed an extensive, Virgin Islands-specific Health Education Toolkit which can be used by a wide range of lay persons and health educators in the territory.

Other accomplishments include a climate change study under the direction of past UVI President Dr. LaVerne Ragster, and the start of a research project in Haiti investigating women and girls displaced by the 2010 hurricane at risk of intimate partner violence, which included hiring individuals in Haiti to conduct data collection.

Dr. Callwood said CERC's work in the Virgin Islands and Caribbean is especially challenging because of the lack of existing databases of information on current conditions. "There are so many areas with limited information available," she said, listing HIV rates among the highest in the country, a serious diabetes problem and a very high percentage of individual undergoing dialysis for kidney problems. "No local clinical research is going on to look at what treatments are most effective," she said. "There are many areas on which we could begin to focus in order to assist health care providers, areas that would make a difference in the outcome of patient care." Dr. Callwood expressed her appreciation to all Virgin Islanders who participated in the Center's research projects which are beginning to increase understanding of health issues in our communities. She also acknowledged CERC partnerships with the hospitals, the Department of Health and the Health Centers that contributed to the Center's success.

While some of the Center's work allows for immediate community feedback - such as town hall meetings sharing climate change study results and the Health Education Tool Kit - other results are shared with health educators, regulators and other researchers, such as the five Health Disparities Institutes CERC has now sponsored in the territory, and national and international meetings. Three CERC representatives made podium presentations during the International Council On Women's Health Issues in November, in Bangkok, Thailand.

CERC is also beginning work on moving a data warehouse to UVI in order to store the results of new information as it is developed and make it more readily available to other researchers as well as the public. The Center's research is being done in collaboration with senior researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Case Western Research in Cleveland, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Colorado.

Dr. Callwood said the continuing funding will also allow the Center to fill a new position of a research director, who will be charged with overseeing the Center's research and identifying additional funding opportunities. She also wants to increased community involvement in the future, using tools such as town hall meetings to help better understand the health disparities issues of the Virgin Islands and where to focus CERC's effort.

More information on the goals of the Caribbean Exploratory Research Center at UVI, its central staff and the network of researchers involved in sponsored projects is available from the Center's website - http://cercuvi.com.