Organizers of the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne were determined to go ahead with the event after the airline crash that killed six participants and never considered canceling because “that’s not what the people on the plane would have wanted,” said a Boston researcher who is attending the gathering.
“Despite the tragedies, I’m hoping to hear about some exciting advances in HIV/AIDS eradication and advancement,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, chief of the division of vaccine research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
The deaths of the delegates — all of whom were aboard Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down Thursday over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers on board — cast a shadow over AIDS research’s largest annual event.
The conference’s opening Sunday noticeably lacked the sense of excitement and promise that traditionally accompanies the annual event, Barouch said, as speakers paid tribute to the six conference delegates in what they described as a senseless act of violence and a tremendous loss to the campaign against AIDS.
“These are not the types of conversations we were expecting to have here,” said Barouch in a phone interview Friday shortly after he arrived at the conference. “The mood here in Melbourne is very somber. This really senseless act of violence is completely shocking.”
The president of the International AIDS Society, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, opened the conference Sunday by asking past presidents and the incoming president to join her onstage, said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who is also attending the conference.
They asked for a moment of silence to represent “our sadness, our anger, and our solidarity,” Kuritzkes said.
About 12,ooo scientists and activists from 200 countries are at the conference to discuss the latest developments in AIDS and HIV research.
The International AIDS Society confirmed Saturday night the six lost: Joep Lange of the Netherlands, former International AIDS Society president and executive scientific director of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development; his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development public official; AIDS lobbyists Pim de Kuijer and Martine de Schutter; Lucie van Mens, director of support at the Female Health Company; and Glenn Thomas, World Health Organization media coordinator.
The society paid tribute to Lange on its website Saturday, and said in a statement it would keep the six delegates “in our hearts as we begin our program.”
“This senseless tragedy has had a profound impact on those of us attending the International AIDS Conference,” Kuritzkes wrote in an e-mail from Melbourne. The deaths “leave an immense void, but those of us who remain will redouble our efforts to advance the work for which [Lange] and others who perished on the flight fought so hard.”
Lambert Grijins, the Dutch ambassador for sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, spoke Sunday and honored each of the six lost on MH17. “The room is full. But I do see a few empty chairs, which were supposed to be occupied by six of our friends,” said Lambert Grijns, Dutch ambassador for sexual and reproductive health and rights, according to the Wall Street Journal. “They leave a huge void at this conference.”
Others paid emotional tributes throughout the day, and more are expected throughout the week, said Barouch.
“No doubt these will continue throughout the meeting, given the many, many lives touched by those who were lost,” Kuritzkes wrote.
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