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Conferences

May11

Listening carefully

Monday, 11 May 2015 Written by // Bob Leahy - Editor Categories // Conferences, Living with HIV, Opinion Pieces, Bob Leahy

Last week Bob Leahy was in Toronto for CAHR 2015. For this Canadian HIV research conference he was a CATIE Learning Institute “rapporteur”. Find out what this means, what the experience was like - and what he learned there.

Listening carefully

“rap·por·teur 

noun: rapporteur; plural noun: rapporteurs

a person appointed by an organization to report on the proceedings of its meetings.”

I’ve been to many an HIV conference in my time – I need to, in fact, to keep up to date on what’s going on – but  I don’t think I’ve paid so much attention to the proceedings as at CAHR 2015. (CAHR by the way stands  for Canadian Association for HIV Research.)

First let me say that the life of a rapporteur is not an easy one, but not without its rewards. Attendance for the entire conference is mandatory, of course, CATIE’s Learning Institute who sponsored my attendance makes that clear, but also involves long days and intense concentration.

The objective of the exercise is to bring a community lens to research presented at CAHR. Working with CATIE educators, we were each assigned to one of the four CAHR research tracks. Learning Institute participants debriefed nightly and collaborated to produce a Community Rapporteur Session on the final day of the conference which summarized what we saw as the main take-away points.

Some of the research material presented at these conferences is complex, so as someone who is no friend of big scientific words or PowerPoints on steroids. I opted for the seemingly more user friendly Social Sciences track.  Braver souls than I opted for Basic Sciences, Clinical Sciences and Epidemiology and Public Health Sciences. I found Social Sciences presentations both interesting and intelligible, although digesting and distilling them in such volume is not without challenges.

The demands were significant. Some two-hour sessions, for instance, consisted of eight oral abstracts (verbal summaries of a particular research project) presented by the respective authors one after the other, bam bam bam, with a lot of furious scribbling froim the rapporteurs to get the salient points down. And the debriefings each evening ate into our social/rest time. By the end of the first day I was pooped.

The rewards? Well, intense listening brings with it much heightened absorption and understanding. I enjoyed that. I also enjoyed the exercise of processing it all in the company of the other community members acting as rapporteurs – a great bunch of people indeed, as were our helpful CATIE educators. Remarkably too,  I think, we all rapidly developed new skills in interpreting and critiquing research, almost by osmosis, that surprised us all. Thus we were able to recognise the diamonds from the dogs. (Yes, there some of each,)  And I LOVED the hotel we were put up in  - the spanking new Delta Toronto down by Toronto’s waterfront, which made us feel pampered, valued and hip, all at once.

The assignment too was hugely helpful in preparing me for IAS 2015 in Vancouver coming up in July, a gargantuan affair which I’ll be reporting on for PositiveLite.com. It’s not my first international conference by any means, but the first for which we have held formal media accreditation. With that goes the need for reporting excellence and the required skills to deliver it, so CAHR helped there.

Back to CAHR, I’ll talk about some of the science that impressed us, but first a quick word about what did not.

Few in our number, for instance, were impressed with research whose sample size was alarmingly small. Can we learn anything worth knowing form interviewing 14 people, for instance, however significant the larger body they represent? Nor could we turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of a body of research which looks at a subset of the HIV population - AIDS Service Organization clients for instance, who tend to represent a unique demographic - and over-reach in applying those findings to “people living with HIV in Ontario:” That methodology was trounced in a plenary session (see 2. below.) yet it is found throughout the system.

The good stuff? Much to choose from here. Not that there was anything earthshaking  – no HPTN052 or PARTNER-like game-changers for instance. (Announcements of this magnitude tend to be saved for the larger, more prestigious conferences. Sorry Canada.)  I’ll report on a sample of the more interesting sessions in a later post, but here are three that impressed this community member most.

1. I’m biased, of course, as I worked on this one, but the ancillary session titled “Towards Developing a Canadian Consensus Statement on the Health and Prevention Implications of HIV Treatment” was a breath of fresh air. Not as well attended as it should have been, it nevertheless engaged community members in grappling with what is important to say about treatment issues, from a prevention, human rights, legal  and access perspective. This is a long delayed public conversation which had to happen and provided a forum for a variety of largely progressive voices to make their views known. There was in fact a surprising degree of consensus on the major talking points. More community consultations will follow.

2.The Plenary session with the lofty title “Interdisciplinarity and the Construction of Knowledge“ delivered by the engaging Dr. Vivian Namaste was far more interesting than it sounded. In fact all in our group were in awe of this gifted speaker's style and content. A thinker whose words influenced our approach to later sessions, Dr. Namaste made the case for deep reflection, contemplation and meditation in matters such as formulating exclusion criteria for research participants. “Who counts as community?” she asked, warning against oversights of all kinds, such as researching only AIDs Service Organization clients because it’s easiest to do so, urging her audience to think about what we know and more importantly, what we don’t know.

3. The final day’s plenary on Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) was about what one would expect – a review of the compelling evidence that PrEP works, followed by a tour of the implementation issues it raises, with the usual depressing shortcomings, particularly access issues, identified. But it felt like we were moving forward, getting more serious with real thought being given to what roll-out might look like. Audience member Ron Rosenes in particular impressed, with a heartfelt call to  “get moving on this", deal with any increase in STI rates, and a plea to sign the HIM-originated petition to have Gilead apply for permission to market Truvada in Canada for PrEP use. (PositiveLite.com covered this campaign here.)

All in all, it was a good conference and a first-class learning experience. Thanks to CATIE for making it available to me.

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