Shockwave over HIV researchers' deaths

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The death of an estimated 100 HIV/AIDS researchers and activists aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has sent a shockwave through the scientific community.

The researchers were on their way to the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Their plane was shot down with a surface-to-air missile from territory controlled by Russian militants in eastern Ukraine, according to the Obama administration.

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All 298 on board the flight were killed.

The International AIDS Society (IAS), which organized the conference, said Friday it had decided to continue with the gathering of the world’s leading researchers to honor those who had died.

“At this incredibly sad and sensitive time the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy,” said the group. “In recognition of our colleagues' dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost.”

Trevor Stratton, a Canadian HIV consultant present at the conference, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the world might never realize the full extent of the tragedy.

“The cure for AIDS may have been on that plane, we just don’t know,” he said. “You can’t just help but wonder about the kind of expertise on that plane.”

There has been an outpouring of grief for those killed in Thursday’s air disaster through news outlets and social media.

On Friday, President Obama offered his condolences for all the lives lost during a Friday news conference, singling out the researchers for their work.

“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,” he said.

The death of Joep Lange, a prominent Dutch HIV researcher, and his wife has especially slammed the research community.

“Joep Lange was a towering presence in the fight against AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic and a wonderful friend, colleague, and teacher,” said Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of american foundation for AIDS Research. “He inspired legions of AIDS researchers, healthcare workers and activists and was an inspiration to me personally.  He will be sorely missed.”

Lange was head of the public health department at Amsterdam University, president of IAS between 2002 and 2004, and founded PharmAccess International, an organization aimed at making healthcare affordable in Africa.

He was best known for his work developing techniques to treat HIV-infected patients in the early 1980s when little was known about the disease. In recent years Lange has become the face of the movement to improve access to anti-retroviral drugs in developing countries. 

Chelsea Clinton also offered her condolences for the loss of life on MH17 on Twitter and said, “Heartbreaking to learn many had dedicated their life to fighting AIDS.”

Her father, former President Bill Clinton, is a keynote speaker at this year’s International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.

This story was updated at 3:23 p.m.