Conferences and meetings are critical to share knowledge, engage stakeholders, and bring the community together. I enjoy attending TB conferences (e.g. Union World Conference on Lung Health, American Thoracic Society meetings), as do my students and team members.
But I am convinced we can do better with TB conferences, enhance their reach and impact. I have 5 suggestions for conference & event organizers. These apply to myself!
1. Organize meetings in high TB burden countries: While meetings in The Hague, Liverpool, Berlin, Banff or Seattle are fine, these regions have a low burden of TB. Sitting in fancy hotels and resorts, it is easy to be disconnected from the reality of the TB epidemic which affects the poorest communities in low and middle income countries (LMICs). Every year, the richest people in the world meet at a ski mountain resort in Davos to talk about poverty. TB must avoid this Davos syndrome.
Further, participants from LMICs often struggle to get visas to enter these countries. This was evident at the 2017 Union TB Conference in Liverpool, and replayed again at the recent Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Liverpool. In fact, WHO has voiced alarm about the impact of the UK government’s immigration policy on international academic cooperation after several foreign scholars were denied visas to attend the Liverpool conference. So, holding meetings in countries which discriminate against participants from high TB burden countries seems antithetical to the very goal of TB conferences.
When conferences have been held in places like Durban, Cape Town, or Guadalajara, the meetings have been more exciting, vibrant, and meaningful. Meetings in high burden countries also allow participants to visit TB projects and communities to get a real-world experience of how TB impacts people and see what is being done to control the epidemic. Needless to say, holding conferences in high burden countries allows local TB control workers (e.g. National TB program staff), experts and policy makers to participate.
Recently, the Union announced India as the venue for their 2019 conference. This announcement was enthusiastically received by the TB community. India has pledged to end the TB epidemic by 2025, and this will require serious cash and commitment. Hopefully, the Union conference organizers in India will use the opportunity well and ensure the participation of the Prime Minister, Health Minister and other key policy makers.
2. Reduce fees for LMIC participants: Registration fees for participants in LMICs must be lower, especially when conferences are held in LMICs. This will enable a much larger number to attend the meetings, and greatly widen the scope and reach.
3. Include TB survivors in all sessions: Unlike the HIV community, the TB community has not done a good job of harnessing the power of survivors and patient advocates. Although this is changing, TB conference organizers can help turn the tide by demanding (or strongly encouraging) that all sessions and panels must include TB survivors and advocates. If we care that our science makes a difference, then we need to listen carefully to those who desperately need science to work for them.
It took me several years to learn the importance of engaging TB survivors. Today, I try hard to include them in every event or course that I organize.
It is not enough to include TB survivors on the agenda, we need to find ways to support their participation. The Union, for example, does a great job of giving registration fee waivers to the affected community. This must become the norm across all TB meetings. Travel scholarships should also be made available to TB survivors, and funding for this can come from sponsors as well as fees paid by other participants.
4. Allow experts from high-burden countries to set the agenda: In most TB meetings, experts from high-income countries set the agenda, chair the sessions, and deliver most of the talks. It is not uncommon at all to see panels composed of only speakers from high income countries.
This is not shocking, since TB research is largely funded by rich countries, and TB has a long history of social inequities and colonialism. But real progress in ending the epidemic will require countries most affected by TB to step up, show leadership, and invest in TB control as well as research.
5. Discourage all-male panels and sessions: In 2018, this requires little explanation, but TB conferences are still dominated by white men. Women make up 70 percent of the global health workforce, yet occupy only 25 percent of leadership positions in global health (including TB). So, conference organizers must actively work to prevent all-male sessions.
In summary, equity is at the center of all global health work, including TB. Our conferences can be one place to demonstrate our commitment to equity.
Photo credits: The Union & Health Systems Global