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AIDS Community Mourns Deaths of Researchers on MH17

People gather next to a sign reading AIDS 2014 in Melbourne on July 18, 2014 after news that downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was carrying many participants headed to the 20th International AIDS Conference planned this weekend in the Australian city.

The international medical community is mourning the sudden deaths of as many as 100 AIDS researchers and experts who were headed to a high-level AIDS conference in Australia. They were among 298 passengers aboard a Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in volatile eastern Ukraine. Australia’s prime minister has blamed pro-Russian forces for shooting down the flight.

The losses of life will likely compound an already tragic event, by robbing the broader struggle against HIV and AIDS of some of its leading researchers.

Among them was Joep Lange, who researched the condition for more than 30 years and was considered a giant in the field, admired for his tireless advocacy for access to affordable AIDS drugs for HIV positive patients living in poor countries.

"Global health and the AIDS response have lost one of their great leaders,'' Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a former executive director of UNAIDS, told Reuters in London.

Australia’s leader blamed the tragic crash on pro-Russian separatists and says he will summon Russia’s ambassador to Australia to discuss the issue.

FILE - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, April 12, 2014.
FILE - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, April 12, 2014.

Addressing the Australian parliament, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: "Madam speaker this is grim day for our country and it's a grim day for our world. Malaysian Airlines MH17 has been shot down over the eastern Ukraine it seems by Russian-backed rebels and 295 people have been killed. At least 27 Australians have been killed."

The prime minister spoke before the number of passengers was revised to account for three infants on board.

Denis Napthine, premier of Australian the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, said officials are still seeking information on how many conference attendees were killed.

"There are varying figures about the number of passengers on the route to the AIDS conference," he said. "We know there's been confirmed a number of senior people who were coming out here who were researchers, who were medical scientists, doctors, people who've been to the forefront of dealing with AIDS across the world who were on that flight. And there were other people who were also coming to the conference. So, the exact number is not yet known, but there is no doubt it's a substantial number."

Australia investigating

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, says her government is still investigating the event. Pro-Russian rebels have laid siege to eastern Ukraine, a Russian-speaking area, for months, and in June shot down a Ukrainian military plane, killing all 49 people aboard.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop arrives at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Sydney, July 18, 2014.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop arrives at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Sydney, July 18, 2014.

”We don't know the cause but there is speculation that the plane was shot down. If that is the case it is an unspeakable crime. We are seeking a full, independent, international inquiry and investigation into the circumstances surrounding this crash in eastern Ukraine. We are seeking access to the crash site. It is in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine," said Bishop.

The International AIDS Society said in a Friday statement that they are still seeking details on how the crash will affect their conference.

But, they added, in recognition of their colleagues’ great dedication to fighting this deadly epidemic, the conference will go on as planned.

Some material for this report came from Reuters.