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05 Oct 2016

Highlights from The International Congress for Tropical Medicine and Malaria 2016

By Suellen Nicholson

The International Congress for Tropical Medicine and Malaria was held in September in Brisbane, Queensland and was hosted by The Australian Society for Parasitology, the Australian Society for Infectious Diseases and the International Federation for Tropical Medicine. The Congress bought together clinicians, scientists, veterinarians and epidemiologists from across the globe all working towards a common goal – to reduce the morbidity and mortality caused by infectious diseases, with an emphasis on the Tropics.

Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute, gave a great plenary talk on the importance of HIV cure. She said that while very successful treatment is now available for HIV infection, with a $30 billion annual projected cost by 2030, a long-term cure is needed. Mr Phillip Cunningham from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney discussed how many developing countries have HIV treatment available, but very little laboratory infrastructure for testing.

Professor Peter Hotez MD PhD is the founding Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, Professor of Paediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair of Tropical Paediatrics and he delivered a keynote speech about neglected tropical diseases. He spoke about his concept ‘blue marble health’, which explores the idea that neglected tropical diseases have a disproportionate impact on the poor living amongst the wealthy in G20 countries and the need to strive for equity. Professor Hotez also spoke about the ‘Anthropocene’, a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have significant global impact on earth’s geology and ecosystems. He proposed that both the Anthropocene and his ‘blue marble health’ were forces contributing to the impact of neglected tropical diseases. He also emphasised the importance of ensuring global vaccination rates remain high to maintain herd immunity, which is essential for continued protection.

Paul Lilburn from King’s College London in the UK described the incredibly difficult conditions within an Ebola Holding Unit (EHU) at Connaught Hospital, Freetown Sierra Leone at the time of the 2014-2015 West African Ebola outbreak. This outbreak claimed more than 11,000 lives and infected over 27,000 people across seven countries. The EHU isolated and screened suspected Ebola virus infected patients, providing initial care and laboratory testing to confirm Ebola virus infection status. Positive cases were then referred to an Ebola Treatment Centre, negative cases went to wards and deceased patients were safely stored until collection by burial teams. Lilburn explained how they assessed environmental contamination and decontamination practices within the EHU including recommending ‘regular refresher training of cleaning staff and the use of viral swabs to assess Ebola virus contamination within a clinical setting’ to maximise safety for treating staff.

Professor Kevin Marsh is a senior advisor at the African Academy of Sciences and Professor of Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford and gave a thought provoking presentation on ‘Malaria – Progress and Pitfalls.  2016: Where are we? Half glass full or half glass empty?’ Some of the good news points presented by Professor Marsh were: ‘Malaria falling in many (but not all) parts of the world; disproportionate gains in child survival; renewed optimism and thoughts of eradication; and new interventions – vaccines, drugs and vector control approaches.’ However, he also said there is: ‘Artemisinin resistance, insecticide resistance, concern over diagnostics, flat (and insufficient) funding for control in an uncertain world and large populations with reducing immunity.’

The Congress engendered a great collaborative atmosphere promoting the sharing of ideas, results and discussion about future directions in Tropical Medicine. While there have been significant gains, there is a huge task ahead and I look forward to the next International Congress for Tropical Medicine and Malaria, which will be held in Thailand in 2020.

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