Strength through collaboration: the ASHM regional scholarship program

August 21, 2023

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In July this year, 26 leaders and emerging leaders from 13 countries across Asia and the Pacific touched down in Brisbane, Australia. They were welcomed by ASHM’s global team who, over the course of the following week, would play host as they attended the International HIV Coinfection and Viral Hepatitis Elimination Conference and the International AIDS Society 12th Conference on HIV Science.

The Asia-Pacific Conference Scholarship Program, which was supported by the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Abbott, was built on the principle of cross-country collaboration – the belief that our response to the challenges posed by HIV, viral hepatitis, and other sexual and reproductive health concerns will only be stronger together.

For scholarship recipients, many of whom have been working in their country’s responses to these diseases for many years, the opportunity to attend was invaluable.

Doctor Lavenia Guanavinaka, Senior Medical Officer at the Fiji Ministry of Health and scholarship recipient, said the program made her attendance possible.

“I’ve worked for about ten years in the field of HIV, and this was my first time at the conference. It was really an eye opener, and as some of my colleagues mentioned, a wake-up call for us,” said Dr Guanavinaka.

It was a sentiment shared by her colleague Dr Dashika Balak, Senior Medical Officer at the Fiji Ministry of Health and scholarship recipient, who remarked that the program ensured representation from across the region.

“What ASHM has pulled off in this conference is to get the Pacific delegates together, which has been missing in previous conferences. While it’s usually just Fiji or PNG represented, it was really good to see the other countries [represented],” said Dr Balak.

“It’s made a good network of us, to network together but also to learn from each other.”

Dr Balak said the scholarship program was an important opportunity to step outside each country and to understand where they fit within a bigger picture.

“Some countries are doing very well in some areas as compared to the others, so this was a good platform for us to learn from each other, how we can improve, what are our strengths, what are our weaknesses and to develop as a whole in the Pacific,” she said.

Throughout the week and across both conferences, the scholarship recipients regularly came together to connect and reflect on what they had learned – including during a reception with DFAT and First Assistant Secretary, Global Heath Division Lucas de Toca PSM. They also gathered for a workshop at the end of the trip, to reflect on the program and what each scholarship recipient had gained from the experience.

Many common themes emerged. For example, that the triple elimination of HIV, hepatitis B and syphilis is a priority for all participant countries, with an opportunity identified to learn from Thailand and its elimination of HIV and syphilis in pregnancy. Similarly, many discussions focused on the rise of new HIV infections in the region, with targeted interventions for priority populations and the limited uptake of PrEP core concerns.

And importantly, many shared their sentiments about how what they learnt could fit within the context of their home countries, and how it could be applied when they got back home.

The Asia-Pacific Conference Scholarship Program was designed to provide an opportunity for recipients to increase their knowledge while expanding their professional networks – and from their reflections at the workshop (and the group WhatsApp chat), it achieved just that. We look forward to continuing to work with and learn from our scholarship recipients, and hope to see them all again soon.

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