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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

Reflecting on the 2nd Virtual Meeting of the ASTMH at TropMed21

Written by the PLOS NTDs Editorial Team

In November 2021, the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene held its 70th annual meeting – a fully virtual conference for the second time in a row owing to the continued grip that the COVID-19 pandemic has on the world. While the mood of the second virtual meeting was buoyed by the successful deployment of highly efficacious SARS-COV-2 vaccines in many places, the virtual format underscored just how unequal this distribution has been due to the fact that much of the world still lacks access to these life-saving vaccines and is unable to travel because of bans imposed by highly vaccinated countries. A conference dedicated to rooting out inequity in global medicine and health research was itself stymied by the most urgent example of such circumstances. Yet despite the limitations imposed on ASTMH by the pandemic, the message and purpose of the conference was clear: through rigorous, collaborative scientific research that centers the input and dignity of impacted communities, we can create lasting solutions that break the cycle of poverty promoting diseases.

In the year since the last ASTMH meeting, the need for a collaborative community of scientists has only grown. To exit this pandemic and to avoid a similar or worse catastrophe in the future, we must develop a cooperative community of public health experts that can coordinate a global response to local threats. At ASTMH, presentations from researchers regarding disease surveillance and global health diplomacy were punctuated by Plenary Sessions delivered by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and a panel of experts in global public health policy. In Dr. Walensky’s address “CDC: A Disease Threat Anywhere is a Disease Threat Everywhere”, the CDC director expounded upon the need for high-income countries to meet threatening pathogens where they are, including in low and middle-income countries, if they wish to ensure global health security. As global citizens, we must be as invested in the health of our neighbors as we are in the health of people on other continents. The existence of the ASTMH conference is predicated upon the idea that this extends not only to diseases that can be reasonably anticipated to impact high-income countries but also to neglected diseases that saddle more than a billion people worldwide with debilitating symptoms that prevent them from thriving. 

Another aim of the conference was to instill a renewed sense of urgency related to the effective communication of research to the broader public, an issue that has been on display with vaccine hesitancy worldwide. While vaccine deployment has been challenged by a lack of supply available to low and middle income countries, there has also been an issue with vaccine uptake in the countries where it is widely available. A growing anti-science movement has linked with a long-standing, entrenched anti-vaccine movement to promote distrust in the SARS-COV-2 vaccines. These challenges threaten to derail the progress that has been made combatting this pandemic, with the fallout continuing to disproportionately affect members of vulnerable communities throughout the world. ASTMH took aim at this with their programming, including the Fred L. Soper Lecture delivered by Dr. David Freedman and the Sponsored Symposium showing of the film “A Shot in the Arm.” In the Fred L. Soper lecture, Dr. Freedman detailed the years of leg work that went into developing the basis for these vaccines and allowed for their rapid deployment that has been the beacon of hope in this pandemic. This presentation underscored the importance of sustained, effective scientific communication, such that the broader public is engaged with ongoing developments and not merely called upon for their trust in times of crisis. The airing of the documentary “A Shot in the Arm”, a film delving into the anti-vaccine movement, indicates a desire to encourage the ASTMH members to respond to this movement with compassion. While these issues were predominantly discussed in relation to the COVID-19 vaccines, throughout the conference you could see examples of researchers seeking to understand how they could best convey their research to communities and employ stakeholder engagement to combat neglected tropical diseases. Treatments and interventions to eradicate these diseases can only thrive in an environment in which there is trust in their safety and efficacy – that begins with trust between researchers and their subjects. 

Attending ASTMH as a publisher, the conference underscored the obligation we have to our authors to provide a trusted platform to share their research with the broader scientific community and the public. At a time when facts and science are under attack, we must renew our efforts at transparency as an Open Access publisher to establish confidence and a clear research record. Additionally, we must look for ways to invest in the global research community by continuing our efforts to decolonize science so that the research and the solutions are developed and deployed by members of the communities they are designed for. At PLOS NTDs, and PLOS as a whole, we’re proud to advocate for a collaborative, community centered approach to publishing scientific research and grateful to be able to attend a conference that centers itself around those values. 

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