Every two years, HIV researchers, people living with HIV, policymakers and other individuals, gather at a conference to learn about and discuss recent scientific developments in the field of HIV/AIDS research as they pertain primarily to the Asia Pacific region.
This year, the International AIDS Conference is set in Melbourne, Australia, but before the meeting could begin this weekend, tragedy struck.
Malaysia Airline's Flight 17 was shot down on Thursday, July 18, and with it, many dedicated and renowned AIDS scientists, health professionals and activists. Among them was esteemed scientist Joep Lange.
Lange was a Dutch scientist who had dedicated 30 years of work to combating the HIV and AIDS epidemic. He had served as the president of the International AIDS Society, a leading independent organization of HIV professionals, from 2002 to 2004. He was the founder and chairman of the PharmAccess Foundation, a not-for-profit in Amsterdam that strived to make HIV/AIDS therapy more accessible for patients in developing countries.
He was also staunch advocate of using combination therapy to manage HIV/AIDS due to drug resistance buildup in single-drug therapies.
AIDS is largely an epidemic in poor, developing countries. 95 percent of HIV infections are in such regions and in sub-Saharan Africa alone, 28 million people carry the disease.
An obituary in The Telegraph reports that Lange once said: "If we can get Coca-Cola and beer to every remote corner of Africa, it should not be impossible to do the same with drugs." He traversed the globe tirelessly to promote access to preventative measures, treatment options, counseling and education in developing countries.
Lange boarded Malaysia Airline's flight 17 with his wife, Jacqueline, and "a number" of other scientists, health officials and activists headed to Australia for the International AIDS Conference. Some reports estimate as many as 100 of the passengers on board the flight were making for the conference. Such reports are still waiting confirmation and Chris Beyrer, who is about to become the next president of the International AIDS Society, said authorities believe the number to be smaller than reported.
Three Dutch AIDS activists were also confirmed to have been on board the flight. Lucie van Mens had done prevention work; Martine de Schutter managed Bridging the Gaps, a program that advocates for global access to HIV prevention; and Pim de Kuije was a lobbyist from Stop AIDS Now. HIV/AIDS spokesman for the World Health Organization, Glenn Thomas, was also on board the flight on his way to the conference.
Approximately 14,000 delegates from 200 countries are expected to attend this year's conference, organized by the International AIDS Society. The conference is a meeting of minds with the end goal of edging closer to the cure for this global epidemic. Since the first reported cases in 1981, more than 25 million people have died of the disease. Yet people like Joep Lange did not forfeit, but rather they plowed through, delving deeper into the science of the disease, hoping for answers.
Today, the world pays its respects to those who helped in humanity's fight against infections and diseases only to die in a disaster triggered by the turmoil and unrest of a tenous peace.