Health professionals and community members providing care to African Americans will have a hole in their calendars at the end of February. A venerated community-specific health conference, the National Conference on African Americans and AIDS (NCAAA), has been indefinitely postponed due to budget difficulties, according to conference organizers. The conference had been slated to begin on Feb. 22.
This news is so recent that, as of press time, the NCAAA Web site still displays this year's conference dates and Baltimore, Md., venue.
The National Conference on Latinos and AIDS (NCLA), which customarily takes place in midsummer, is also being postponed.
"The conference often feels as much like a homecoming or reunion as a medical education event," says K. Mary Hess, founder and director of both conferences. The conferences bring together a wide range of health professionals providing care to African Americans and Latinos, from case managers and peer counselors to top physicians and renowned community activists. Continuing medical education credits are also provided to nurses and physicians who attend the conference.
The NCAAA and the NCLA "provided a forum for minority physicians, researchers and other health care professionals to ... articulate an epidemic that, in recent times, is centered in communities of color," says Larry Bryant, director of national organizing for the New York-based HIV/AIDS organization Housing Works. "There are no other national forums that address ... two [of the] hardest hit populations in the U.S."
Hess founded the NCAAA in 1999 and continues to coordinate each conference with the help of a tiny staff and supporters from the U.S. HIV/AIDS community.
According to Audria Russell, HIV program coordinator at New York City homeless services organization Women in Need, Inc., the conference has given providers "information on best practices that have enhanced the supportive care ... provided to clients who are infected or affected by this disease."
According to Hess, the conference's roughly $250,000 price tag is paid for in part through the participation of nonprofit educational partners. However, grants from pharmaceutical companies provide the bulk of the funding -- and make possible the comparably low registration fees ($115 for doctors, nurses and physician assistants -- in other words, those whose job allows them to prescribe drugs -- and $95 for non-prescribing health professionals), as well as free passes to the conference for about a third of its attendees. This year, all but one pharmaceutical company declined their support of the conference, Hess stated.
"If [pharmaceutical companies] are going to expand their markets exponentially, their corporate responsibility needs to keep pace -- especially supporting U.S.-based organizations in the market that made all the profit possible," says Hess.
Says Housing Works' Bryant, who has attended the NCAAA each year since 2006: "[T]he landscape of meaningful, visible, national forums for people of color to address these issues is very bleak."
What can be done to ensure that the conferences return in 2011? Hess urges the conferences' past pharmaceutical partners to reconsider their grant policies and to communicate more openly with their grantees. In the meantime, she suggests that organizations and individuals start planning and saving now so that they can sponsor an exhibitor table at the next conference. "If I had 50 nonprofit tables sponsored, we could do this event even with no pharma support," says Hess.
Hess also encouraged fans of the conferences to become her friend on Facebook in order to help her bring together a cohesive national network of supporters for both conferences.