Deceased AIDS researchers grieved on social media

BY Anna Christiansen and Diane Jeanty  July 18, 2014 at 3:58 PM EDT

As many as 100 AIDS researchers, activists and health care workers en route to Melbourne for the International AIDS Conference are believed to have died on Malaysian Airlines flight 17, shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday.

Today the AIDS/HIV research community is mourning these losses.

“The UNAIDS family is in deep shock. Our hearts go out to the families of all the victims of this tragic crash. The deaths of so many committed people working against HIV will be a great loss for the AIDS response,” said Michel Sidibe, the executive director of UNAIDS, in a Friday press release.

An outpouring of grief emerged on social media as conference attendees learned about who may have been affected. Professor Joep Lange, the former President of the International AIDS Society and Glenn Thomas, a media advisor for the World Health Organization, have been the first confirmed among the victims.

Described as a leader in AIDS research, Lange’s death was especially devastating. The former President of the International AIDS Society between 2002 and 2004, his contributions to AIDS research dates back to the 1980s when the virus hit epidemic highs. He trialled the first round of antiretroviral therapies, which is now used as a routine treatment for the disease.

In 2001, Lange founded the PharmAccess Foundation, which worked to get AIDS drug medications to developing countries and continued to chair the foundation until his death. He was also the senior scientific adviser to the International Antiviral Therapy Evaluation Centre in Amsterdam and co-director of an HIV research collaboration based in Thailand.

His partner Jacqueline van Tongeren is reported to have been on the flight with him. Lange was a father of five.

A blog post written by Laurie Garrett, a Senior Fellow for Global Health Council on Foreign Relations, and friend of Dr. Lange reverberated amongst grievers on social media.

“Like so many of the great AIDS scientists that toiled through the years of extreme loss and urgency before there was effective treatment, Joep Lange absorbed the political dimensions of the pandemic, and gained the skills necessary to translate lab and clinical findings into high-level battles inside the United Nations and across the global stage. He became a leader, in the fullest sense of that word.”

Other researchers are continuing to be identified but names have not yet been released. Pim de Kuijer, an AIDS activist and former European commission diplomat, is the latest victim identified as deceased.

At a press briefing with reporters Friday morning, President Obama praised their work and sent his condolences for their families.

“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,” said Obama. “It’s important for us to lift them up and affirm their lives.”

The International AIDS society said in a statement that the conference will still go on as planned. Former President Bill Clinton and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson are expected to speak when the conference begins on Sunday.