Cambridge Global health Conference: Students are leading the way

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Dr Rhona MacDonald, freelance editor, (rhonamacdonald@gmail.com)

“It never ceases to amaze me how much Medsinners [members of Medsin] accomplish while studying full time, and with such limited resources; giving up weekends and evening to work for the cause,” says Elly Pilavachi, the current national co-ordinator of Medsin , a student led UK charity. And the cause? Medsin’s mission: “to create a network of students, empowered to effect tangible, social, and political change in health on a local, national and global level through education, advocacy, and community action.”

I wholeheartedly agree with her words and share her amazement. Medsinners are awesome as I witnessed last weekend while at Medsin’s national global health conference based in Cambridge. In addition to the logistical triumph of the Cambridge student team in organising such a huge conference (there were 4 plenary sessions with 3 speakers in each and up to 60 workshops), over 300 students (the majority of which were medical students) from around the UK, gave their time, energy, and scare financial resources to learn more about the conference theme: “The mad and the bad: the diseases that nobody talks about.”

Many diseases and conditions could fall into this area but the conference focused particularly on the neglected tropical diseases and mental illness. At first glance, these two areas may not appear linked but there are many overlapping issues. For example, people with neglected tropical diseases, such as leprosy, and people with mental health problems are stigmatised by society. One of my most memorable memories of the conference is the talk given by Peter Byrne, a consultant liaison psychiatrist and Director of Education for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who eloquently demonstrated how people with mental illness continue to be stigmatised in the way in which they are portrayed in film and the media.

Plenary sessions and workshops discussed the particular issues of neglected tropical diseases, such as the lack of affordable treatments and diagnostic tests, mostly due to the lack of pharmaceutical company involvement in the Research and Development of this unprofitable market area. But there are many possible solutions to help move forward, including public private partnerships and publications such as PLoS Neglected Tropical diseases. Others looked at WHO’s Global Burden of Diseases and how in 2030, there will be no infectious diseases in the top 15 conditions — chronic non communicable diseases and road traffic accidents will lead the way. Articulate student advocates for Pharmaware, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines and minds for health enlivened many sessions.

At the end of an exhausting weekend, I felt that the conference and its passionate participants had not only exemplified Medsin’s mission but also its Vision—a fair and just world, in which equity and health is a reality for all. If doctors of the future are anything like these marvellous Medsinners, there is hope for the world, a realistic opportunity to improve global health and the chance to make a lasting difference.

As I began with the words of Elly Pilavachi, I will also finish with them: “On these occasions when we are left feeling bereft of energy, when our work appears to go unrecognised, and we struggle to grasp the results, there is nothing more invigorating than knowing that there are thousands of young people in the UK who are still striving for the same outcome.” Amen to that!

Competing interest: RM is a Trustee of Medsin

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