Friday 28 November 2014

World of AIDS research in crisis as dozens of leading experts killed on MH17

Published 18/07/2014 | 11:59

HIV virus particles Photo: Getty Images
HIV virus particles Photo: Getty Images

The world of AIDS research is in a state of shock today after dozens of leading experts in the field were feared killed when a Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, dealing a blow to hopes of curing the disease.

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.

"He's one of the icons of the whole area of research. His loss is massive," Richard Boyd, professor of immunology at Monash University in Melbourne, told Reuters.

As many as 100 people heading to the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne were on the doomed flight, Fairfax Media reported, including Lange, a former president of the International AIDS Society (IAS) which organises the event.

"The cure for AIDS may have been on that plane, we just don't know," Trevor Stratton, an HIV/AIDS consultant who was attending a pre-event in Sydney, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"You can't just help but wonder about the kind of expertise on that plane."

The conference, due to start on Sunday, features former U.S. President Bill Clinton among its keynote speakers and is expecting around 12,000 participants.

The IAS said it was still working with authorities to confirm the number of conference delegates on the flight.

"In recognition of our colleagues' dedication to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost," it said in a statement.

TRIBUTES POUR IN

Peers paid tribute to Lange, a Dutch professor of medicine at the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam.

The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down on Thursday by a surface-to-air missile in an area of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting government forces.

Lange pioneered access to key AIDS medicines in poor countries, including combination drugs to control HIV and antiretroviral medicines to prevent transmission of the virus from mothers to their babies.

"Joep had an absolute commitment to HIV treatment and care in Asia and Africa," said David Cooper, a professor at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, co-director with Lange on an HIV research project in Bangkok.

More than 4,000 HIV patients in Thailand have received up-to-date medication thanks to the scheme over 15 years, said Praphan Phanuphak, co-director of the HIV project in Bangkok with Lange and Cooper.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the London-based international health charity the Wellcome Trust, said he was "deeply saddened" by the news.

"Joep was a great clinical scientist," he said in an emailed statement. "He was also a personal friend. He is a great loss to global health research."

The World Health Organization (WHO) said media spokesman Glenn Thomas was among those on board Flight MH17.

Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, told a news conference in Geneva that Thomas had been with the organisation for more than a decade.

"Glenn will be remembered for his ready laugh and passion for public health," he said. "He will be greatly missed by those who had the opportunity to know him and work with him. He leaves behind his partner Claudio and his twin sister Tracey."

Thomas, a British national, was in charge of promoting the WHO's report issued last week that said five key groups including gay men had stubbornly high rates of HIV.

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