MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - This year’s global AIDS Conference has ambitious goals, notably to eradicate the dreaded virus by 2030. But a cloud hung over the proceedings, caused by the death of six researchers and AIDS experts who were among those killed on a Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over volatile eastern Ukraine.
During the next week, about 12,000 delegates at this massive international event will discuss nearly every facet of the virus that has confounded the world for more than three decades. They will discuss everything from the hard science behind HIV treatment, to how the virus affects families and societies around the world.
But first they observed a minute of somber silence for the six top researchers and activists who were killed Thursday en route to the conference, when pro-Russian rebels in restive eastern Ukraine allegedly shot down their commercial plane, killing all 298 people aboard.
International AIDS Society president Francoise Barre-Sinoussi expressed grief over the loss of the researchers, which included her predecessor, leading Dutch researcher Dr. Joep Lange.
“I would love to be telling you that we were opening this conference in happier times. The extent of the loss of our colleagues and friends is still hard for me to express. We grieve alongside all of those throughout the world who have lost family and friends in this senseless tragedy,” she said.
But HIV-positive delegates said they would not let the tragedy divert attention from the greater cause.
“I have been living with HIV for five years. I am HIV-positive because of lack of information,” said Ayu Oktariani, a board member of the Indonesian Positive Woman’s Network.”What happened to me is common throughout our region and the world. I come from the most populous Muslim country, but our situation is not unique. I am surrounded by peers from other countries - Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and we all faced the same problem. Many of us got HIV because we did not have the means to protect ourselves.”
She says she and fellow patients are crucial to the fight against AIDS.
“HIV cannot be solved by science alone. Because of the stigma of HIV, we need to include people living with HIV in the response,” she said.
Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, also addressed the conference via satellite, and expressed both sadness and anger over the deadly plane crash, which killed 36 Australian citizens and residents.
The head of the U.N. AIDS body, Michel Sidibe, also expressed determination and anger, and some serious goals.
“Today, I am calling for ending AIDS by 2030. My vision for ending AIDS looks like this: voluntary testing and treatment reaching everyone, everywhere,” he said. Each person with HIV reaching viral suppression. No one dies from AIDS, or is born with HIV. People living with HIV live with dignity, protected by laws, and free to move anywhere in the world. This vision is not just my own vision. It is from my friend, and mentor, Joep Lange. His vision will stay with me until it becomes a reality."
The conference continues through Friday.