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At least six delegates en route to the International AIDS Conference in Australia – including a respected past president of the organization – are now confirmed to have been among 298 people who died in the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Rumours and reports shortly after the crash suggested 100 or more delegates were aboard, presumably based on the fact that Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur is a popular routing for travelling from Europe to Australia.

The newspaper The Australian reported that 108 of the passengers on MH17 were delegates, though it did not provide a source for that precise information.

An initial statement saying there were seven confirmed deaths was later revised to six.

Chris Beyrer, incoming president of the International AIDS Society said that, to date, the group has been able to confirm that seven researchers and activists were aboard the ill-fated jet.

He said that number may change in the coming days but that the number of conference delegates on board the ill-fated flight was surely "an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported." (Identification of the victims has been delayed by the refusal of Malaysia Airlines to make the flight manifest public until it is certain that family members of all on board have been notified.)

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said that, regardless of the exact numbers, global AIDS community is in shock at having lost some of the "finest academics, health-care workers and activists in the AIDS response."

He added that: "We are bracing ourselves to hear of the deaths of others who worked in the AIDS response as their names are officially released."

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who will deliver the keynote address at the AIDS conference, said the delegates gave their lives for a cause they cared about deeply.

"Those people are really in a way martyrs to the cause that we are going to Australia to talk about," he told CNN.

The most prominent of those who perished was Joep Lange, a professor of medicine at the Academic Medical Centre at the University of Amsterdam and a former president of the IAS.

His partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, a board member of the group ArtAIDS, a group that promotes art with an AIDS-related theme, also died.

The five other delegates headed for the Melbourne conference who have been confirmed dead are :

  • Glenn Thomas, media relations co-ordinator at the World Health Organization in Geneva;
  • Lucie van Mens, director of program development and support for the Female Health Company, a manufacturer of female condoms;
  • Martin de Schutter, a representative of the Dutch AIDS groups AIDS Fonds;
  • Pim de Kuijer, a writer and activist with the group STOP AIDS NOW!

This is not the first time that prominent AIDS researchers have died in aviation disasters.

In 1998, Dr. Jonathan Mann, who founded the Global AIDS Program at the World Health Organization, and his partner Mary Lou Clements, head of the Division of Vaccine Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, died in the crash of Swissair 111 of the coast of Nova Scotia.

And Dr. Irving Sigal, a molecular biologist who helped develop drugs used to treat HIV-AIDS in the early days of the pandemic, died in the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

The 20th International AIDS Conference is being held from July 20-25 in Melbourne. More than 13,000 delegates from around the globe are expected.

Nobel laureate Dr. Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and president of the International AIDS Society, said that, despite the tragedy, the conference would continue, out of respect for the lives lost: "Because we know that it's really what they would like us to do."

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