AIGHD co-organizes biggest INTEREST Conference in history

Some people consider the number 13 to be unlucky. But for the organisers of the recent INTEREST Conference, it’s a number they’ll remember for years to come.

The 13th annual INTEREST Conference took place in Accra, Ghana May 14-17 and had the largest number of abstract submissions, registrations, and attendees of any INTEREST conference yet.

Opened by the First Lady of Ghana Her Excellency Mrs Rebecca Akufo-Addo who gave a powerful speech on prevention of mother-to-child transmission, the INTEREST Conference was the first to be held in an anglophone country in West Africa.

The conference brings together world-renowned HIV experts and young African researchers with the overall goal of contributing to building the next generation of African scientists and facilitating opportunities for networking in the field of HIV. It was founded in 2007 by the late Prof. Joep Lange of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development (AIGHD) and Prof. Charles Boucher of Erasmus University. Each year, AIGHD partners with Virology Education (VE) to co-convene the conference.

A record 613 abstracts were submitted to INTEREST 2019 from 39 countries – a 60% increase from 2018 – and 435 were accepted. Six hundred and eighty-seven people attended the conference this year, up from last year’s 592.

“Each year, we see an increasing number of attendees, registrations, and abstract submissions from across Africa and around the world, which speaks to the reputation the conference has developed as the premiere HIV science conference in Africa,” said Prof. Catherine (Cate) Hankins, AIGHD academic staff and Scientific Chair of the INTEREST Conference.

The INTEREST 2019 Local Co-chair was Prof. Kwasi Torpey of the University of Ghana and Prof. Elly Katabira of Makerere University, Uganda was the third conference Co-chair. The three INTEREST Conference Co-chairs were supported by very active International and Local Organising Committees.

Since 2015, the conference has been dedicated to the memory of Joep Lange and Jacqueline van Tongeren, both of whom were tragically killed when the Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight was shot down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

In honour of Joep, an award was established in his name. It is given each year to the highest scoring abstract submitted to the conference by an early-career African scientist. Zambian Sylvia Mwanza received this year’s award, which includes travel, accommodation and registration for the following year’s conference.

“Joep’s vision was to create a platform that would build the next generation of scientists and the INTEREST Conference does exactly that. We’re proud that his legacy and vision are very much alive through the conference and many other initiatives he led,” added Prof. Hankins.

In addition to symposia, oral and poster presentations, and lively debates, the program also includes parallel early morning sessions. These include the Joep Lange early-career mentoring sessions with senior researchers; grantspersonship discussions presented by NIH, ANRS, and EDCTP; and themed poster discussions. The mentoring sessions are chaired by senior scientists and researchers and allow participants to ask questions and receive guidance in an intimate setting.

This year, in addition to a treatment advocate pre-meeting, prevention advocates and those interested in paediatric and adolescent HIV treatment met before the plenary session. For the first time, there were 14 journalist scholars attending INTEREST as part of training provided by the International AIDS Society and by AVAC.

Since 2016, a local art exhibition has been held in memory of Jacqueline, who was an avid art lover and worked tirelessly to build the conference from the beginning alongside Joep and Charles. This year’s artist-in-residence was Naa Ashirifia Mettle-Nunoo, a young, contemporary urban Ghanaian painter and sculptor.

For the third year in a row, Professors Guido Ferrari and Catherine Hankins were successful in applying for a grant to cover registration, travel, and accommodation for the top 38 abstract presenters. This grant from the USA National Institutes of Health (NIH), with additional support from the Fogarty International Center and in 2019 from PEPFAR, is critical in bringing young scientists from across Africa together to share their findings and further develop their ideas for HIV research.

Discussions for INTEREST 2020 are already underway and organisers expect to make an announcement about the host country in the coming months. In the meantime, please visit the INTEREST Conference website for the official conference report and speaker presentations.