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Travel Story: Michelle Clarke

Michelle Clarke from the Robinson Research Institute travelled to Ljubljana, Slovenia in May to attend the ESPID conference, including plenary/invited talk sessions, e-poster viewing sessions and themed oral presentation sessions. Michelle delivered an oral presentation on her PhD research, “Associations between body mass index and vaccine responses following influenza vaccination during pregnancy.”

This is what Michelle had to say about her experience.

What was a highlight of the travel

One highlight was an excellent presentation about the use of observational studies to assess causal inference and strategies for improving reliability of findings from observational research. This talk from Miguel Hernan from the USA was very informative and will change the way I approach observational research analysis in the future. He was very good at not only showing some of the pitfalls, but offering solutions and demonstrating with real examples how to avoid common issues for observational research. Another highlight was listening to Flor Munoz discuss results of the prepare trial -a study looking at efficacy of RSV vaccines given during pregnancy for infant protection against significant RSV disease. This was exciting as I have been heavily involved with coordinating at the Adelaide site.

Did you meet any researchers or collaborators of significance? Why are they important to your work?

I met with several representatives from different vaccine manufacturers – GSK, Pfizer, MSD, Sequirus and Sanofi. I was able to discuss some of our meningococcal research with GSK and Pfizer representatives whom are aware of our research team and are funders for the AMEND and B Part of It study. I met with a MSD/Seqirus representative (Debra Bourke) to discuss some of my research interests with influenza, and discuss her views on influenza vaccines.
I also took the opportunity to catch up with the clinical trials manager from Melbourne (Marita Kefford) to discuss challenges and opportunities in clinical trials.
These were all valuable interactions and important to my work. A substantial part of my career has been collaboration with industry, and I believe maintaining these connections and building on them will increase opportunities for collaboration and will ensure that research proposals I develop are of importance and relevance to industry as well as academia and the general public.

How will the experience support you and your research going forward?

I was able to increase my knowledge and feel up to date with the current priorities and challenges for research in vaccine preventable and paediatric infectious diseases. We heard some of the latest industry data on duration and cross protection for Trumemba and 4CMenB vaccines. In addition to the wealth of knowledge gained for the latest research relevant to paediatric infectious diseases, the experience has given me new perspectives for communicating scientific findings as well as critically appraising observational studies. The experience of delivering an oral presentation to such an expert audience was daunting but I feel proud to have been given an opportunity to do so.

What was the most exciting thing you learned/experienced whilst traveling?

A brilliant presentation from a psychologist on risk perception and how the general public interprets statistics and scientific information was fascinating. The presenter discussed the way the human brain focuses on negative information more rapidly than positive information, and discussed how perception of risk isn’t necessarily rational, even when provided with evidence and statistical summaries. I was intrigued to learn about the benefits of talking about vaccines and the diseases they aim to prevent in a different way.

What was the most interesting or unexpected moment of your travel?

One unexpected and interesting moment of the conference was a debate on universal vaccination programs for rotavirus vaccines. I was surprised to hear that the Netherlands, a leader in healthcare, does not provide rotavirus vaccine as part of its universal vaccination program. Instead, they provide a limited funded program for high-risk individuals. It was interesting to hear a range of different views about the reasons for and against inclusion of rotavirus vaccine on funded infant vaccine programs. Some policy leaders suggested that the vaccine was cost saving for their countries, others discussed the implications of additional vaccines being added on parental acceptance of the overall program as well as local epidemiology and perception of mildness for rotavirus related gastroenteritis for the general population. I found it interesting to see that different countries can review similar evidence, but come to different conclusions about what is best for their population.

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