We will bring together internationally renowned clinicians and researchers who will present and discuss significant and exciting developments in the diversity of infectious disease topics relevant to both participants coming from low, middle, and high resource countries.”
Holding the vividly colored brochure in my hand, I finished reading through the welcome address from the chairs of the scientific program of the 13th World Congress of the World Society for Pediatric Infectious Diseases and proceeded to mentally bookmark the sessions that we planned on attending. The flight to the venue took almost 20 hours, and the six-hour difference was making it extremely difficult to be that clear-headed. Alongside the absolute necessity to come up with a carefully curated schedule was to ensure that staying awake in the next few days would have to be considered as part of the top priorities.
Opening ceremonies. It definitely deviated from what was conventional. The choice of speakers was a welcome surprise for the participants who were expecting sessions that would be more scientific in content. The first one was an editor and founder of GroundUp, a nonprofit news agency in South Africa, known to regularly feature stories of public interest. The previous day, he had given a talk in a research workshop, and I was looking forward to a rerun of the practical, sometimes taken for granted, pieces of advice that could be of valuable assistance to the medical community on how to be more adept at engaging and utilizing media as a platform, little knowing of his previous involvement with TAC (short for treatment action campaign), a civil society group known for its substantial work on AIDS.
Navigating my way into their website after his talk, TAC is described as an organization that was established in 1998. Its vision is “[to have] a unified health system that provides equal access to quality and dignified health-care services for all, including people who are living with HIV and TB.” In its mission statement, it referred to itself as “science-based activists, working to expand and accelerate vital research and effective community engagement with research and policy institutions for an end to HIV, TB, and HCV pandemics.” Since its inception, it has been instrumental in enabling better access to health care for South Africa’s public sector. The speaker was an awardee for courageous journalism.
Wishing and daydreaming that such a person could be cloned and transported back home, I struggled to prevent my thoughts from wandering. I was dangerously close to falling into a temporary state of hopelessness, knowing how our beloved country is currently grappling with issues on HIV, TB, dengue, low immunization coverage rates for vaccine-preventable diseases, and in some parts of the country, schistosomiasis. Let me not go into the added burden of malnutrition and its increasing tendency to co-exist with infection.
It was close to six o’clock in the evening, and jet lag and hunger combined were threatening my ability to stay alert, and worse, increasing the likelihood of falling off my chair and embarrassing colleagues. I was prepared to make a “French exit” prior to the start of the next session but glad to have followed my instincts and stayed.
The moderator started off by introducing the next speaker as a famous wilderness guide. In the same breath, we were encouraged to get a hold of the book that he had co-authored with Bridget Pitt, a fellow South African and an environmentalist.
If you believe that the most powerful instrument in conveying a message is telling a story, Sicelo Mbatha is one with you in that belief.
In a soft, gentle, and unassuming tone, he spoke of an experience wherein he witnessed elephants chasing away lions who were preying upon buffaloes that had been stuck in a mudhole. Thinking that he was the only one transfixed, he looked behind him to see the people that he had accompanied, crying silently, unashamed to display their emotions. Listening and trying to envision the scene, we all realized what he was getting at. Failing to understand at the onset, he had just perfectly illustrated, in his own fashion, the depth of connection between his expertise and medicine. In particular, the healing effects that one can obtain from having a better understanding of the wilderness and its influence on the cycle of life. He shared that he never had the opportunity to have a formal education, but his constant and intimate encounters with Mother Nature have provided the best lessons on how to live life.
As impressed as I was with the wealth of scientific information that has been made available and happy to have been given the chance to interact with the experts in the field, the memory of sitting in that hall and being able to reflect on their stories was the ones best to be remembered from the conference. To say that they inspire is an understatement.