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Raising awareness of infectious diseases

On March 21, the Comparative Healthcare Systems Program (CHSP) presented its second annual International Public Health Conference on the topic of infectious diseases. The aim of the conference was to encourage a healthcare dialogue at McGill.

“The theme speaks to the breadth that [CHSP] focuses on,” said Max Deschner, a CHSP coordinator who helped organize the conference. The coordinators – Deschner, along with Nadine Lombardo-Han and Kira Gossack-Keenan – found that this conference was of great importance in a world where infectious diseases are still very much a problem.

At the conference, three speakers presented research surrounding this global issue: Theresa Gyorkos focused on prevention using deworming programs, Dr. Nitika Pant Pai discussed diagnostic health for HIV, and Kate Zinszer, a PhD student at McGill, explained malaria prediction.

Gyorkos, a McGill professor at the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, started off the conference with her research on preventing the spread of intestinal worms. Enthusiastic and accessible, Gyorkos turned a nauseating subject into an audience favourite. Worm infection is cyclical, as their breeding begins in humans, who then excrete those worm eggs into the soil. The worms then move their way into other humans, and the process starts all over again. As Gyorkos says, if the environment does not change, the disease will not decrease The only way to eliminate worms in people properly is for governments to consistently monitor their deworming policies, and evaluate them to see if they are actually working. Gyorkos’ purpose at the conference was in fact to raise public awareness so that governments begin to recognize deworming as a legitimate program to help those in need. Intestinal worms affect nearly two billion people worldwide, the most susceptible of whom are children, ages ten to 14. While her talk was a little drawn out, Gyorkos presented a convincing argument for the necessity of deworming to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Pai came on next to speak about self-testing for HIV, primarily in Canada and South Africa. Pai, an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Epidemiology at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), was very well versed in her research. Negative attitudes and stigmas toward HIV testing have resulted in the reality that a significant portion of North Americans have no idea what their HIV status is, Pai explained. She discussed self-testing for HIV and its potential to alleviate the pressures of getting tested. At first it was unclear how self-tests were better than tests conducted at clinics, apart from being convenient. Not only does it allow for privacy and 98 per cent accuracy, but “self-testing is the way of the future,” according to Pai. Today, no other infectious disease has an FDA approved self-test, but Pai insists that self-tests will eventually become commonplace. The issue is that this self-test is not yet available in Canada. Pai explained that the self-test companies are not interested in Canada because of “the socialized healthcare system.”

The last speaker was Ms. Zinszer, a PhD candidate at McGill, who focused on predicting malaria in Uganda. As the youngest speaker, I found her very relatable, which is important for someone who is trying to get interested in infectious diseases. While the symptoms for malaria can differ, the importance of treating it is the same: malaria is the biggest child killer in the world. Despite being jetlagged, Zinszer effectively expressed the need to find a solution. Just like with Gyorkos’ worms, students need to get interested and involved in infectious diseases, because it is other children who are the greatest victims here.

Even if we cannot find a cure for worms, HIV, or malaria by ourselves, what is important here is spreading the word. That is why all students should attend conferences like CHSP – to start to get interested. If more people are interested in deworming policies, HIV self-testing, and treating malaria, then governments will follow suit. Even for an Arts student like me, it showed me the nightmarish realities of our present, and helped me realize what I can do to help solve our current problems, instead of waiting for the next generation to solve it.