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Deaths of HIV researchers on MH17 "an incalculable loss in every sense"

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Even for a community that's used to tragedy, the sudden deaths of prominent HIV researchers and activists in the Malaysia Airlines plane en route to an international AIDS conference came as a body blow.

Australian newspapers were reporting that as many as 108 conference participants died en route to AIDS 2014, though organizers say they are only able to confirm six names:

  • Pim de Kuijer, STOP AIDS NOW!
  • Joep Lange, co-director of the HIV Netherlands Australia Research Collaboration (HIV-NAT)
  • Lucie van Mens, Director, AIDS Action Europe
  • Maria Adriana de Schutter, AIDS Action Europe
  • Glenn Thomas, World Health Organisation
  • Jacqueline van Tongeren, Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, president of the International AIDS Society, said we may still learn that more AIDS 2014 participants died in the crash, but she believes the final toll to be much smaller than the early figures circulated in the international media. "The extent of our loss is hard to comprehend or express," she added.

The conference, which takes place from July 20 to 25, is expected to attract as many as 12,000 attendees to Melbourne, Australia this week. Those involved are still reeling from the tragedy.

"To lose people so heavily engaged in efforts to fight HIV is an incalculable loss in every sense," said Shawn Jain of the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, DC.

"The International AIDS Conference is already a time of reflection for those we have lost to HIV/AIDS. Losing colleagues engaged in the fight against HIV who were in transit to the event will only make it more somber. "

Prominent HIV researcher among the victims

Joep Lange, a prominent HIV researcher and former president of the International AIDS Society, was one of the victims.

Lange was one of the key researchers behind several HIV treatment trials

A professor of medicine and head of the department of global health at the University of Amsterdam, Lange had been involved in HIV treatment and research since 1983, just as the virus was emerging as a global health threat.

He was one of the key researchers behind several pivotal antiretroviral therapy trials, including projects involving the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the virus in both the developing and developed world, according to the Amsterdam Institute of Global Health and Development. He was also an early advocate of bringing HIV medications to the developing world, traveling to the most under-served areas to promote best practices in HIV care. He contributed to knowledge about HIV/AIDS with more than 300 academic papers and as editor of the journal Antiviral Therapy.

Lange was traveling with his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, who has also died in the crash. According to University of Amsterdam website, van Tongeren helped Lange with many of his HIV/AIDS efforts and was involved in global health work, too.

"Thanks to her previous experience as an HIV-AIDS nurse, she was extremely familiar with the issues concerned," the website reads. "Over time, the bonds between Joep and Jacqueline developed far beyond those of a relationship between colleagues."

"Joep was a visionary amongst HIV researchers," American HIV researcher Dr. Rick Elion told Vox. "He was acutely aware of the multiple dimensions of HIV spanning science to society and had a heart of gold. This is a huge loss for the field."

Dr. Martin S. Hirsch, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School who trained many of the current leaders in the HIV/AIDS field, said Lange was "someone who rationally looked at the problems of access to HIV therapies around the world, and did something about it."

The global health community reacts to the tragedy

The global health community is trying to make sense of the losses as a clearer picture of the death toll emerges.

At a news conference Friday, President Barack Obama paid tribute to the felled conference-goers.

"In this world today, we shouldn't forget that in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these, people who are focused on what can be built, rather than what can be destroyed; people who are focused on how they can help people that they've never met; people who define themselves not by what makes them different from other people, but by the humanity that we hold in common."

British-born World Health Organization staffer Glenn Thomas was among the dead. He was a media relations specialist for the UN based in Geneva, and a former journalist.

Dr. Rachel Baggaley, of the HIV Department at the WHO, had just landed in Melbourne when she heard about the news. "I'm just devastated," she said. "He's a very close colleague whom I work with on a daily basis." She added: "He just had his birthday. He was going to plan all sorts of celebrations."

Several WHO staffers were on flights to the conference, but Thomas was the only one on MH17, according to a WHO statement.

Pim de Kuijer, Maria Adriana de Schutter, and Lucie van Mens—prominent activists who worked for Dutch HIV organizations—were also on the felled plane.

De Schutter had worked and lived in Argentina, Bolivia and the United States, according to her LinkedIn profile, where she wrote, "Throughout my (professional) life I hope to contribute to making the world a better place to live, work and love."

"It is incomprehensible that they're no longer here," Stop AIDS Now Executive Director Louise van Deth told the Washington Post. "It is a heavy blow that people who have been so active for so long in the fight against AIDS have been wiped out."

"Every human life is precious," global health researcher Dr. Peter Singer wrote to Vox, "but when we lose those dedicated to saving lives we suffer a double loss."

The conference will go on

The most recent statement from the International AIDS Society, convenors of AIDS 2014, said the conference will go on.

"In recognition of our colleagues' dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost."

IAS president Barre-Sinoussi also said that the organizations who lost colleagues in MH17 would be invited to pay their respects in the opening ceremony, and that books where people can share their condolences will be distributed at the conference.

Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winner researcher and journalist who has written about infectious diseases including AIDS, told Vox that the HIV/AIDS community is used to dealing with death. "I would say if there's any scientific community that is resilient in the face of death, it's this one."

"This is a community that has dealt with death profoundly since the discovery of the virus," she said over the phone. Of the pre-antiretroviral days, she added, "We have known meeting after meeting when we arrive some of our colleagues would not be there to join us because they would have died of AIDS."

Still, she noted that some of the younger conference participants may not remember the early days of AIDS. "I am not in the Melbourne meeting, and I'm glad of it. When it opens on Monday,  it will be a mass funeral. It will be difficult for a lot of people to shake off the shock and sadness. But I believe very much this is a community that is determined and dedicated, and they will succeed."

Not the first plane tragedy to impact the AIDS community

Other AIDS researchers have died tragically in plane crashes. Jonathan Mann, a prominent AIDS researcher who knew Lange, also died in a plane crash with his wife, Dr. Mary Lou Clements-Mann, while on their way to an AIDS conference.

Lange and Mann had organized the 1992 AIDS conference in Amsterdam, which was originally supposed to be held in Boston but had to be re-routed to Europe because of policies banning HIV-positive people from entering the US.

Irving S. Sigal, a molecular biologist who helped to develop AIDS treatments, died in the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.