18 Jul 2014

MH17 senseless violence robs us of finest minds on HIV

As you leave Melbourne Airport, there is a desk to welcome the delegates pouring in over the next couple of days for the International Aids Conference 2014.

Suddenly it seemed so heartbreaking, knowing that some of those delegates (perhaps as many as 100) will not arrive, will not pick up their welcome pack, will not give their speeches or add their contributions.

There is a sense of terrible disbelief here that something so appalling could have happened. Every life lost is mourned but for those attending this conference there is also the knowledge that on board that plane were some of the finest minds working in the world of HIV.18_mh17aids_wEven as I write, the International Aids Society is meeting to discuss the implications although they have already made the decision that the conference should go ahead.

Earlier they issued a statement saying that it would be in recognition of “our colleagues’ dedication to the fight against HIV/Aids”. There will be opportunities, it continued, to reflect and remember those we have lost.

It is also the case that the world of HIV/Aids scientists and doctors is not so large and many people here will know someone or know of someone who was on that plane.

Listen: ‘We’re just lost’ – Dr Helen Lee, a delegate at the conference, describes the mood in Melbourne and pays tribute to Joep Lange

Rightful tributes have been paid to Joep Lange, who was thought to have been on MH17 with his wife. Dr Lange had been researching HIV for 30 years, was pivotal in several antiretroviral therapy trials, including those involving mother to baby transmission.

A friend of his has just emailed me to say he was a truly inspirational scientist. “He was one of the first people to show that people in poor countries could be treated and then he pushed for universal access. Now there are over 10 million people taking antiretrovirals,” the email read.

Inevitably there are questions being asked about what this means for HIV/Aids research. And I have seen one person quoted as saying the cure for HIV could have been on that plane.

It is really too early to even begin that sort of speculation but there is no doubt that the fight against this disease will be the poorer for the senseless act of violence.

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