The 20th International AIDS Conference began Sunday in Melbourne, Australia, as attendees mourned the loss of colleagues in last week's plane crash in Ukraine. Yesterday, the International AIDS Society released a statement confirming that at least six delegates traveling to the conference were onboard the Malaysian Airlines flight.
Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor at Harvard Medical School who is attending the conference, said the attendees are reeling in disbelief.
"The mood is somber, people are in shock," he told WBUR's Kassandra Sundt. "And it's certainly not the type of discussions that people were planning to have here."
Despite the tragedy, he said there was no discussion of canceling the conference, which is scheduled to continue through Friday.
'A lot of people's lives are saved because of his work.'
"There are clearly statements of sorrow and condolences and moments of silence throughout the scientific sessions, throughout the conference dinners, and privately," he says. "But from the start everyone acknowledged that it would be the desire of all those who died tragically in this plane crash to have the work go on."
Among those confirmed dead are Lucie van Mens, Director of Support at The Female Health Company; Glenn Thomas, spokesperson for the World Health Organization; and Jacqueline van Tongeren, from the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development. Also killed were Pim de Kuijer and Martine de Schutter, both representatives from the Dutch advocacy group Aids Fonds.
Dr. Joep Lange, a pioneer in HIV/AIDS research who often visited Boston to recruit physicians and scientists for his work, was also confirmed dead. Dr. Lange served as the co-director of the HIV Netherlands Australia Research Collaboration.
"It's a huge loss for the HIV/AIDS community and global health overall," Dr. Barouch says. "Dr. Lange was on the forefront of fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic since the beginning. He was a major advocate for access, bringing anti-retroviral drugs to the developing world."
According to Dr. Barouch, who met Dr. Lange many years ago at a conference, "If it weren't for him, then a lot fewer people would be on anti-retroviral therapy. A lot of people's lives are saved because of his work."
While initial reports said that over 100 conference attendees died on the flight, the statement from the International AIDS Society suggests that the actual number is smaller.