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MH17: International AIDS Conference becomes a sombre event

Flowers are laid as tributes to those killed in the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, at the base of a large sign for the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne July 20, 2014. At least six people aboard the flight, including Joep Lange, a leading light in the field of AIDSresearch, were heading to the AIDS 2014 Conference in Melbourne, according to the International AIDS Society (IAS) which organises the event. The Boeing 777 plane was apparently brought down by a surface-to-air missile on Thursday in an area of eastern Ukraine.

Mark Dadswell/REUTERS

The historic Princess Bridge has been decorated with the words "AIDS 2014," a blood-red, two-metre high welcome to the 13,000 delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference.

Below the carefully crafted sign is an inconspicuous but equally powerful hand-written message : " R.I.P. In memory of the many lives sadly lost on the way to beautiful Melbourne," and alongside it an ever-growing number of flower bouquets and flickering candles, a touching makeshift memorial to the six conference delegates who were among the 298 victims of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17.

The AIDS community is used to dealing with death, and experienced with mourning. After all, the pandemic has, to date, claimed more than 39 million lives.

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But the deaths of a half-dozen activists and scientists – and that of renowned AIDS researcher Joep Lange in particular – have struck a chord because of the cruel manner in which they occurred and because they come at a time when there is such a sense of hope about reining in the pandemic.

Antiretroviral drugs, which Dr. Lange helped develop, and making them widely available and affordable to prevent the further spread of HIV, which the Dutch researcher passionately championed, have had a dramatic impact.

In the past decade, AIDS-related deaths have dropped by 35 per cent, new infections in adults are down 38 per cent, and HIV infections in children have plummetted by 58 per cent.

The trend is so promising that researchers are now talking openly about the end of AIDS pandemic within a generation.

But the loss of Dr. Lange; his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren, of the group ArtAIDS; 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 group AIDS Fonds; Pim de Kuijer, a writer and activist with the group STOP AIDS NOW!; and Glenn Thomas, media relations co-ordinator at the World Health Organization in Geneva, has cast a pall over the event.

Outside the conference venue, the flags are flying at half-staff, and they will continue to do so until the event wraps up on Friday.

In the exhibition hall of the conference, at the booth sponsored by the Dutch government, a simple desk has been set-up, featuring photos of the fallen, a large bouquet of unbloomed tulips, and a book of condolences. The messages, in a multitude of languages, include tearful remembrances from both close friends and strangers who were touched by their work.

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A number of AIDS 2014 delegates are also sporting, alongside the red ribbons that are de rigueur, small black hearts of remembrance, and a candlelight vigil is planned for Tuesday evening.

The opening ceremonies of the conference, initially slated to be an upbeat celebration of the scientific and political victories of recent years, was instead a somber affair that began with a moment of silence.

"Let our silence represent our sadness, anger and solidarity," said Nobel laureate Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and president of the International AIDS Society, as she choked back tears.

She also addressed directly concerns about whether the conference should go on under the circumstances. "I strongly believe that all of us being here for the next week to discuss, to debate and to learn is indeed what our colleagues who are no longer with us would have wanted. We dedicated AIDS 2014 to them. We will remember their legacy and forever keep them in our hearts."

Lambert Grijns, ambassador for sexual and reproductive health and right and HIV/AIDS for The Netherlands, reminded the crowd that 193 Dutch citizens died in the Malaysian Airlines crash, including five of the conference delegates. He paid tribute to each of the five individually, and concluded by saying: "My wish is that we continue to be inspired by these wonderful people."

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