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Confronting the world’s most pressing challenges at TropMed2020

When planning began for the 2020 meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, it’s very unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the global health crisis that would take place this year and the consequences it would have. But like the rest of the world, the ATSMH had to adapt to the demands of living through a pandemic and thus successfully transitioned to an entirely virtual conference this November to allow for the international meeting of scientific experts dedicated to reducing the worldwide burden of tropical infectious diseases and improving global health. 

It’s difficult to recall a year in recent memory when there has been so much attention paid to the work of the global scientific community by the average person, and so it stands to reason that the cause of that scrutiny would also pull the attention of the members of the scientific community as well. In a year defined by racial reckoning, the ravages of climate change, and political instability, it’s hard to ignore that the ever present threat of COVID-19 has pulled our collective attention away from some of the most pressing issues of our time. From the outset, it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would play a significant role in the conference due to its direct and knock-on impacts on global health, however it was also clear that the ASTMH organizers, members, and attendees were as committed as ever to reducing the burden of disease on some of the most ignored and underrepresented members of our global community by focusing on tropical infectious diseases that do not capture the global attention. 

This was exemplified in the balance of topics covered in the plenary sessions, including an opening keynote address from Christiana Figueres on how to build back from COVID-19 economic devastation through investments in clean energy infrastructure and a closing keynote address from Dr. Linnie Golightly on confronting racism in tropical medicine. Although Dr. Anthony Fauci was invited to speak on his experiences responding to COVID-19 this year, there was also great emphasis on the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication as evidenced by ASTMH President Dr. Joel G. Breman’s address. Discussion of the strategies employed to achieve global eradication of smallpox touched upon the lessons learned in responding to disease outbreaks that have guided our current responses to novel outbreaks, including COVID-19. A theme that emerged was that the groundwork laid by the global health network of physicians and scientists responding to infectious tropical diseases throughout the world has been critical to our understanding of what constitutes a successful outbreak response applied in the context of what are traditionally considered to be developed countries. Put more simply, we rely upon the tireless labor and innovation of scientists working to address problems in low and middle income countries to respond to pathogens that reach the shores of high income countries. When the expertise of the scientific community in coordination with a government response leads to the eventual end of the COVID-19 pandemic, those scientists will continue working to address health inequities in regions of the world often overlooked by traditional media coverage. 

The conference organizers also made sure to use the keynote addresses to confront the issue of racism and explore the role it has played in medicine and science. The Plenary Session ‘Race and Social Justice: Tropical Medicine’s Troubled Past and Future Challenge’ was a substantive and thoughtful discussion of the current state of racism in the world and the insidious ways in which racism leads to unequal health outcomes for underrepresented and disadvantaged communities. The speakers did not shy away from the way in which science and medical research in the past has taken advantage of the communities it purported to be studying for benevolent purposes. There was a commitment to not only moving forward in a manner that centers around a scientific community that elevates voices and achievements of all races, genders, and identities, but to examining the wrongs of the past to heal wounds and mistrust among indigenous communities and communities of color that have been sown as a result of racism in science. To best address the issue of neglected tropical diseases and ensure sustainable treatment and eradication programs, it is vital to engage stakeholders and commit ourselves to the decolonization of science. 

By using TropMed 2020 to not only address the plight of those suffering from infectious diseases and highlight groundbreaking science, but to take stock of the impact of the current social and political climate on progress, ASTMH has put together a conference that is a timely discussion and source of inspiration for continuing the work that must be done. Let the conference serve as a reminder that neglected tropical diseases are inextricable from the most daunting issues of our time, but that the dedication and expertise of the scientific community can succeed in confronting them. With that in mind, we look forward to entering the new year with renewed purpose and examining the progress made at the next ASTMH.

Image Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Flickr

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