The AIDS research community and activists were stunned and horrified to learn that prominent AIDS expert Dr Joep Lange was among those killed aboard a Malaysian Airlines flight which was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday.
He had boarded the plane in Amsterdam to fly to Kuala Lumpur to join another flight to Melbourne where the 20th International AIDS Conference, the biggest meeting of AIDS activists, researchers and advocates, officially starts on Sunday. About 12,000 delegates are expected at the conference.
Lange, a Dutch citizen, headed the department of public health at the University of Amsterdam. His partner, AIDS communication specialist Jacqueline van Tongeren, was also aboard the flight.
‘Joep was a great source of inspiration for everyone who aimed to contribute to solving the AIDS tragedy in Africa and Asia,’ the university said in a statement on its website.
According to media reports, up to 100 HIV/AIDS researchers and activists headed to the conference from Europe are feared to have been aboard the flight as well, although there’s been no official confirmation of names.
Conference organizers say they had only been able to confirm seven names by midnight on Friday in Australia.
Among the 298 passengers on the plane were Dutch AIDS campaigner Pim de Kuijer, a former European Commission diplomat and parliamentary lobbyist for Stop Aids Now!; and Glenn Thomas, a former BBC producer and a media officer for the World Health Organisation in Geneva.
Others confirmed include Lucie van Mens who had been involved in HIV/AIDS prevention work, and Martine de Schutter, a program manager at Bridging the Gaps, which lobbies for universal access to HIV prevention.
President Barack Obama praised them and their work on Friday.
Obama said in a speech: ‘On board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, there were apparently nearly 100 researchers and advocates traveling to an international conference in Australia dedicated to combating AIDS/HIV.
‘These were men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others and they were taken from us in a senseless act of violence.
‘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.
‘It’s important for us to lift them up and to affirm their lives. And it’s time for us to heed their example.’
The US President also paid tribute to the the 173 Dutch nationals, 27 Australians, 44 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians and nine Britons who died onboard the flight.
‘The UNAIDS family is in deep shock,’ said Dr Michel Sidibe, executive director of the United Nations’ AIDS arm UNAIDS. ‘The deaths of so many committed people working against HIV will be a great loss for the AIDS response.’