National Geographic News
 Members of the public walk past signage on the Princes Bridge for the 20th International AIDS Conference on July 18, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.

People walk past signage for the 20th International AIDS conference on July 18 in Melbourne, Australia.

Photograph by Graham Denholm, Getty Images

Karen Weintraub

for National Geographic

Published July 18, 2014

One of the victims was a prominent AIDS researcher, another was an activist for AIDS and HIV causes.

There was a communications specialist, a lobbyist and a caregiver, all dedicated fighters against the deadly disease who were traveling to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, when the Malaysia Airlines jet carrying them was shot down on Thursday over Ukraine.

On Friday, a day after the attack that killed nearly 300 people, it still wasn't precisely clear how many had been bound for the AIDS conference, or what the impact of their deaths to AIDS research might be.

One thing was clear: For a community that has waged a long war against a tragic disease, the deaths—and the loss of any future contributions the victims would have made to to combat AIDS—was profound.

"This [tragedy] absolutely didn't need to happen—and that especially hits home for people who work on HIV," said David Holtgrave, chair of the department of health, behavior, and society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "In so many ways the loss from the HIV epidemic is terrible, and in so many ways it's preventable."

There have been reports that perhaps one-third of those aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were involved in the effort against AIDS and HIV in one way or another, and were headed from Amsterdam to the conference in Australia. By late Friday, the remains of six AIDS specialists had been identified in the jet's wreckage in east Ukraine:

— Joep Lange, a past president of the International AIDS Society, which runs the biannual conference, and an HIV researcher since 1983. Lange was involved in several key clinical trials on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and on antiretroviral therapy, and was an early advocate of the combination therapy that turned HIV from a certain death sentence into a manageable disease for patients who could afford the drugs.

— Jacqueline van Tongeren, Lange's partner, was director of communications at the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development and a former nurse who treated patients with HIV/AIDS.

Glenn Thomas, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. In a statement Friday, the WHO said that "Glenn will be remembered for his ready laugh and his passion for public health." Thomas, a former BBC producer, leaves a twin sister, who said that "he died doing what he loved," according to the statement.

Martine de Schutter, program manager of Bridging the Gaps at AIDS Fonds. She was a cultural anthropologist with special interests in gender and HIV.

Pim de Kuijer, a lobbyist for the group Stop AIDS Now!, who had previously worked as an election observer at the European Parliament and the Dutch Parliament.

— Lucie van Mens, director of support at the Female Health Company and an advocate for female condoms.

'All Feeling the Loss'

The conference in Melbourne will begin as scheduled this weekend, with a tribute to the dead at the opening ceremony, said Chris Beyrer, incoming president of the International AIDS Society and a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"I sense that people are all feeling the loss, but at the same time are feeling that sense of the gravity of our mission, the meaning of the commitments we've made, the honoring of these lives," he said by phone from Melbourne.

Many people at the conference travel regularly in developing countries "with weak infrastructure, bad roads, lack of emergency services," so deaths during travel, he said, "always (feel) close to home."

James Friedman, executive director of the American Academy of HIV Medicine, noted that because several of the dead were involved in research, the AIDS community will continue to feel the impact.

"Not only did this tragedy take the lives of these researchers, but also robbed the world of their future discoveries and contributions to the HIV/AIDS patients they served," he said in a statement.

Tragic Echoes

Many in the AIDS community saw Thursday's tragedy as the latest in a string of deaths that have tested the spirit of their movement. AIDS has killed more than 36 million people during the past three decades, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations effort against AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes the disease.

Several other prominent leaders in AIDS research have died in airplane accidents, Holtgrave noted, including a biologist who was among the 270 people who died when a Pan Am jet was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. A decade later, Jonathan Mann of the World Health Organization and his wife, Mary Lou Clements-Mann, a prominent AIDS vaccine researcher, were among 229 people who died when SwissAir Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Novia Scotia after having left New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

On his Facebook page Friday, writer and AIDS activist Sean Strub reflected on how the AIDS community would cope with yet another tragedy.

"Those of us who have been engaged in AIDS work for many years are more practiced at grief than any human should ever have to become," Strub wrote. "We learned long ago how to crawl through the rubble of human destruction to carry on, despite the deaths of close friends and allies. That's what we're going to do in the days ahead."

Follow Karen Weintraub on Twitter.

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