July 19, 2014 at 11:22 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
HIV researchers, advocates among victims of Ukraine plane crash

Australia, South Australia, HIV, AIDS,

Six prominent HIV/AIDS researchers who were traveling to the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, were passengers on a Malaysian airliner that was apparently shot down in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. (Image by MJC via Wikimedia)

Malaysian Airlines has confirmed six HIV/AIDS researchers and advocates were among those who were on an airliner that pro-Russian separatists apparently shot down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

Joep Lange, a prominent Dutch HIV researcher who is a former president of the International AIDS Society, which organizes the biennial International AIDS Conference, and his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, were among the 283 passengers and 15 crew members who were on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

A passenger list that Malaysian Airlines released on Saturday also confirms Pim de Kuijer, another Dutch national who worked for Stop AIDS Now, and Glenn Thomas, a former BBC journalist who was a press officer for the World Health Organization, were also on Flight 17.

The airlines has also confirmed Lucie van Mens, another Dutch HIV/AIDS researcher, and Martine de Schutter, a program manager for Bridging the Gaps, were on the flight.

They were traveling to the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, that begins on Sunday.

“The extent of our loss is hard to comprehend or express,” said International AIDS Society President Françoise Barré-Sinoussi after Malaysian Airlines released the names of the passengers who were on Flight 17. “We grieve alongside all those throughout the world who have lost friends and family in this senseless tragedy.”

President Obama on Friday acknowledged the HIV/AIDS researchers and advocates who died on Flight 17.

“These were men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others,” he said. “They were taken from us in a senseless act of violence.”

Reports indicate many of those who are attending the 2014 International AIDS Conference learned about Flight 17 — and those who were on it — as they arrived in Melbourne.

“It’s a cold, somber and bittersweet morning in Melbourne on the eve of the opening of AIDS 2014,” wrote Rod McCullom, a Chicago-based journalist who reports on global HIV/AIDS and health issues, on his Facebook page.

Sean Strub, founder of POZ, an influential HIV/AIDS publication, said on Facebook he and others “were greeted with the horrific news” from Ukraine as they arrived in Melbourne on Friday.

“It feels like the entire city of Melbourne is involved with the conference, or at least trying to make delegates feel welcome, even amidst the mourning,” he wrote.

The Star Observer, an Australian LGBT newspaper that is an official media sponsor of the 2014 International AIDS Conference, on Saturday reported delegates who attended a forum on the epidemic’s impact on men who have sex with men held a moment of silence in honor of the victims of Flight 17.

The publication said many of those who attended the forum were “still visibly shaken.”

“The death of so many of the chiefly Dutch AIDS scientists and activists has made a very big hole in the talent and integrity and energy of the global AIDS response, which we’ll all feel throughout this conference and beyond,” said Don Baxter, who co-chaired the gathering, as the Star Observer reported.

“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,” wrote Strub. “It’s a familiarity that can create coping mechanisms others don’t understand, sometimes including an external stoicism.”

He added this struggle is what will help him and others during the 2014 International AIDS Conference.

“We learned long ago how to crawl through the rubble of human destruction to carry on, despite the deaths of close friends and allies,” said Strub. “That’s what we’re going to do in the days ahead.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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