Reflecting on the APHA Conference: Big Venue and Big Dreams

November 10, 2010

The American Public Health Association annual meeting in Denver this year presented the usual overwhelming array of scientific sessions, booths, and events, all set in a cavernous exhibition center that required a GPS to find your way around. On top of that, 11,500 people milling around attempting to decipher the abstracts book, network, buy lunch (and usually giving up), or desperately trying to find out where room 704 is, makes one wonder why anyone would attend the meeting at all!

The answer as to why it is worth the trouble of attending the APHA annual meeting differs widely. For many it is simply an opportunity to present a scientific paper to a group of one’s peers. For others, it’s an opportunity to meet prospective employers, and for a significant number of people it is the opportunity to meet with colleagues not usually seen during the year and to debate important public health policy areas. What becomes apparent to those who are not just one-off visitors, is that despite the overwhelming number of people attending the conference, there are important, functioning sub-groups. These groups (Sections, SPIGS, and Caucuses) draw people with common public health interests into a community within the larger Association and provide a forum for individuals to make their opinions and views known.

The opening session saw one of the most inspiring speeches given in many years by Cornell West – well known philosopher, author, critic, actor, and civil rights activist. His talk can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/aphadc. Other sessions are available there, or at the APHA website.

The International Health Section is currently the 4th largest grouping in the Association and organized over 200 oral presentations and 300 posters this year on topics ranging from HIV/AIDS to refugee health. BU was well represented in the scientific program with several individual faculty making presentations, and an entire panel being put on by students. BU was also represented in the meeting as a whole with a booth at the exhibition (giving away cool Frisbees), and an alumni reception hosted by the Dean. The International Health Section doesn’t just organize scientific sessions however. There was a capacity crowd at a special session to discuss the new Global Health Initiative – which unfortunately left more questions unanswered than asked. A whole-day workshop for nearly 100 people addressed the legacy of Dr. Carl Taylor and how to move his ground-breaking work in Community-Based Primary Health Care forward. And the section was active in the governance of the Association, steering through a policy resolution in support of the Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel, and supporting the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Section’s resolution on the new Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol.

However, for me this year, APHA was about the people – especially the young people. I met with more than a hundred students and recent graduates who’s main concern was not how to find work (although that is a big concern), but was how to be of service to global health, and bring the lessons of global health back here. Such overwhelming enthusiasm is daunting, and I’m going to be challenged this year to find a way to harness some of that energy to good avail. But it was meeting with the people who made me forget the size, confusion, and complexity of a giant conference, and feel that I was working with colleagues with common values on a shared set of goals. I don’t like to compare conferences, but this one stands out in my mind as being one of the best I’ve had the privilege to attend.

Malcolm Bryant is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Center for Global Health & Development