News & Politics

AIDS Researchers and Advocates Perished on Downed Malaysian Jetliner

Among those killed was Joep Lange, a giant of HIV research and advocacy.

AIDS experts and public health officials on their way to the International AIDS Conference in Australia were among those killed when a Malaysian jetliner was shot down over the Ukraine yesterday. Their deaths prompted an outpouring of grief from their colleagues.

“The International AIDS Society today expresses its sincere sadness at receiving news that a number of colleagues and friends en route to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference taking place in Melbourne, Australia, were on board the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight that has crashed over Ukraine earlier today,” the group's organizers said.

Among the passengers was Glenn Thomas, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, and Joep Lange, an eminent HIV researcher from the Netherlands who was also the former president of the International AIDS society.

Lange led a campaign to expand affordable care for HIV patients in impoverished regions. He is considered an icon in the AIDS medical community.

“Joep was a giant in this field; a researcher who really ‘got it’ in terms of human rights, equity and justice. He was as much activist as researcher — and that is rare. Incredibly sad,” Mitchell Warren, an AIDS activist, told NBC News.

The exact number of individuals on flight MH17 who were heading to the conference is unknown, but Australian officials have said it's a “substantial number” including medical doctors, scientists and AIDS advocates. The event is set to host  about 14,000 delegates from around the world.

At this time, the conference is scheduled to proceed as planned.

The tragedy comes just one day after the United Nations announced that the AIDS epidemic might be waning, with the number of new HIV infections worldwide hitting a record low. Deaths from HIV are also down by 35 percent, as more patients are getting the care they need, the UN also announced. The UN believes that epidemic could end by 2030.

Cliff Weathers is the communications director at Riverkeeper, New York's clean water advocacy organization. He is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.