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Cambridge Global Health Conference highlights neglected illnesses

Students from all over the country recently came together for Medsin’s Global Health Conference, rallying all the energy they could (and they can rally a lot of energy) to take on “The Mad and the Bad—the diseases nobody talks about.” The conference took place on March 12th and 13th at St John’s College, Cambridge.

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child (Det syke barn) 1907. © Munch Museum/Munch-EllingsendGroup/DACS 2002. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz used this picture in his key note speech to demonstrate “the mad and the bad”—a woman sick with grief over a child dying of tuberculosis.

The “Mad and the Bad” refer, respectively, to mental illness and the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).  From schizophrenia to schistosomiasis (a parasitic disease), the illnesses that ‘nobody talks about’ nonetheless affect millions of people worldwide, who are often stigmatised and lack accessible treatment. At their Global Health Conference, Medsin brought some much-needed attention to mental illness and NTDs, inviting world-renowned experts to speak on the issues.

Medsin is a network of students who are passionate about global health equality. Medsin’s three areas of focus are education, advocacy and action, and the conference wove all three into every key note speech, plenary, and workshop session, with attention to the local, the global, and the networks which link them.    So artfully was this done that, throughout the conference, it seemed only natural that education must entail advocacy and action; efforts “to effect tangible social and political change in health” on a local level, must have resonance on a national and global level—and vice versa.

A plenary on “Mental Illnesses and its Effects” engaged the audience not only on a global and local level, but on a deeply personal level as well.    Professor Vikram Patel explored “global mental health:” the burden of mental disorders across the world and the “failure of humanity” in addressing these serious issues.  Dr Roger Banks discussed mental “illnesses” within the UK, pointing out that stigma, mental health challenges, and poverty are inter-related. And Jeremy Thomas, who co-produced “The Secret Life of Manic Depression” with Stephen Fry, shared his personal struggle with manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder).  He said that medical support enabled him to face the reality of his condition and speak about his experiences.  Thomas left a deep impression on the audience of medical students who would soon be in a position to provide similar support.

Feeling ready to confront the obstacles blocking effective treatment for people living with mental illness, audience members were encouraged to get involved in the Minds for Health Campaign, a charity that seeks to address mental illnesses in lower income countries, as well as other campaigns focussing on ethical practice and access to quality medications.

From the key note speech, “The Changing Face of Global Health,” to the last plenary, “Why the neglected diseases?” it was clear throughout the conference that we are on the brink of change, and have the power and responsibility to determine whether that change is positive or devastating. A plenary on “How do we know a disease is important?” ended in a rousing appeal to protect the ideals of the NHS.  And Medsin trustee Dr Timothy Crocker-Buqué pointed out that today’s medical students could play a part in deciding what replaces the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, and that, if they chose, they could aspire to globalise health to the highest standard of practice.

It was hard not to feel connected by the end of the conference—to an energetic group of ‘Medsiners’, to the distinguished speakers who repeatedly, humbly admitted their admiration for these passionate students, and, through a collective hope and vulnerability, to humanity. Professor David Molyneux ended his speech with the remark, “If you are healthy, you have 100 wishes.  If you are sick, you only have one.” It seems Medsiners have dedicated many of their wishes to curing the “sick”— not only those diseases which pervade the body, but the social sicknesses—inequities in health—which plague our world.


By Anne Radl  ~  24 March 2011




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