The EFIS-EJI African International Conference on Immunity (AICI: www.aici2011.org) took place from November 3 to November 7, 2011 in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, a meeting that is sponsored in part by the EFIS-EJI partnership beyond its typical European remit . The central theme of the meeting was “Immunity in infectious diseases and allergy—diagnosis, treatment and prevention” and it was a follow-up to two earlier conferences at the same venue, one in 2007 whose theme was “Immunity: From deficit to excess” and the Fifth Congress of the Federation of African Immunological Societies (FAIS: www.faisoc.org) in 2003. The latter meeting was attended by representatives of the International Union of Immunological societies (IUIS) and its regional affiliates, the European Federation of Immunological Societies (EFIS), the Federation of Immunological Societies of Asia (FIMSA), and the Latin American Federation of Immunological Societies (ALAI). There is no doubt that the slogan of the IUIS, “Immunology without borders,” has been a driving force behind the meetings organized in Africa, which are intended to create a platform where international immunologists have the chance to discuss with those directly working in the field some of the most important immunologically mediated diseases that have high prevalence in this continent.
In sub Saharan Africa, the world's major infectious diseases have found a safe haven, causing untold human suffering, death, and economic devastation. The big three infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, continue to be the commonest causes of illness and death. In addition to these, are diarrheal illnesses and respiratory infections other than tuberculosis. Furthermore, the prevalence rates of asthma, rhinitis, and allergic diseases are also increasing exponentially in this area, and traditional tropical infections such as schistosomiasis have not gone away. New infections including the pandemic influenza infections add to the disease burdens of these countries whose human and financial resources are limited.
The thinking behind the EFIS-EJI AICI was to bring leading immunologists of the world together with health personnel who deal with the effects of these infectious diseases in order to create a platform that allowed the participants to appreciate the challenges and the opportunities that can accrue from juxtaposing the human aspects, the research and perhaps the financial capabilities of the established, usually northern and western, centers with those of the heavily disease-burdened centers in the South. Already at the first AICI, which was held in 2007, it turned out that this mix, and the reciprocal exposure to the capabilities of each side, generated a hunger to address these issues with the benefit of an exchange of ideas with renowned world experts.
The EFIS-EJI AICI was attended by more than 100 participants from more than 20 countries (Fig. 1). The meeting was a remarkable gathering of internationally highly renowned scientists, including the Nobel laureate Rolf Zinkernagel who gave a highly stimulating lecture entitled “Immunology taught by viruses” (Fig. 2), established scientists from Africa, and, most importantly, highly talented students from Africa and many other parts of the world. In the main scientific sessions, which were dedicated to infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and other parasite infestations, as well as to allergy and clinical immunology, speakers from Africa and many other parts of the world succeeded in combining state of the art knowledge with the presentation of novel scientific findings.
According to the Hygiene Hypothesis, the prevailing paradigm is that the prevalence of infectious diseases and parasitic infestations is inversely correlated with the prevalence of allergy [2-4] (Fig. 3, left side). However, it was noted at the conference that the clinical observations made in Africa seem to indicate that allergies, infections, and parasitic infestations exist as co-morbidities in many patients and are not mutually exclusive [5, 6] (Fig. 3, right side). In fact, in Africa an increase of the prevalence of allergy has been noted and there is evidence that the different forms of allergy, for example in some parasite-infested patients, can be due to the recognition of molecules with low allergenic activity such as carbohydrates .
The format of the meeting, which took place in the backdrop of Victoria Falls, facilitated interactions between the participants. “Meet the Professor” sessions, interactive poster sessions, and educational courses allowed the students not only personal contact with established researchers but also the opportunity to impress them with their high quality of research and the timeliness of their topics.
The organizers noted a marked improvement in the quality of the research presented by the African students of whom the best 12 received fellowships for their excellent contributions. A special session was organized by Olivera Finn from Pittsburgh to discuss the challenges for women in science and to share her knowledge, especially with female African researchers. The conference was closed with a session entitled “With your collaboration, Africa can.” During this session, several important conclusions were made. It was noted that the combination of high technology with the wealth of clinical experience in Africa regarding major immunological diseases holds great promise for solving critical research questions in immunology, such as the development of vaccines for devastating infectious diseases. It should therefore be a major goal to continue to promote the getting together and working together of immunologists with an interest in finding solutions for immunologically mediated diseases in Africa. The EFIS-EJI AICI therefore complements other initiatives such as workshops, including one held in conjunction with the European Congress of Immunology 2009 to enable immune monitoring in countries such as Africa . It is the conviction of the co-chairmen of the AICI that it is necessary to continue to provide platforms for interactions. The next edition in this series of African International Conferences on immunity is tentatively scheduled for 2013 in Uganda.