AIDS activists, researchers and caregivers often gather to learn from each other, swap notes and look ahead at how to fight one of the greatest public health challenges of their lives. This year, the 20th International AIDS conference is being held in Melbourne, Australia, amid the grim news that some participants, including a top researcher, perished in the destruction of Malaysian Airline Flight 17 over the Ukraine.
Investigators were still sorting through lists to identify all of the 298 passengers and crew who died on the Boeing 777 that was shot down Thursday in eastern Ukraine while en route from Amsterdam to Malaysia. More than half of the victims were identified as Dutch, and one had dual American-Dutch citizenship. They came from 10 countries and included scientists, amateur athletes, tourists and those heading home to be reunited with loved ones.
President Obama singled out the AIDS conference group as a special loss.
“On board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, there were apparently nearly 100 researchers and advocates traveling to an international conference in Australia dedicated to combating AIDS/HIV,” he said Friday morning. “These were men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others, and they were taken from us in a senseless act of violence.”
“In this world today, we shouldn’t forget that in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these -- people who are focused on what can be built rather than what can be destroyed, people who are focused on how they can help people that they’ve never met, people who define themselves not by what makes them different from other people but by the humanity that we hold in common,” Obama said. “It’s important for us to lift them up and to affirm their lives. And it’s time for us to heed their example.”
The dead included Joep Lange, who was best known for participating in work in the 1990s that helped discover the impact of combination therapy, the uses of multiple drugs in a cocktail to supress HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Millions of people around the world take a variety of antiretroviral drugs in such cocktails to help keep HIV at bay.
Before such therapies were available, “AIDS was a death sentence,” said Dr. Thomas Coates, an expert on HIV prevention who directs the UCLA Center for World Health. He called Lange's death “really tragic.”
Recently, Lange, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Amsterdam, had focused on improving the availability of HIV medication around the world, Coates said. He called the Dutch researcher “a great scientist who cared deeply about doing something about HIV all over the world...a nice, nice man.”
Coates, who had known Lange for 20 years, said that the AIDS research community is closely knit.
“I'm worried about all of them, and who else I might know,” he said of those on the flight.
The conference, which attracts thousands of people, will go on as scheduled despite the loss, organizers said on Friday. But there will be a grim air at the start on Sunday.
“To have so many people who have crossed the globe devoting their lives to helping humanity cut down in this fashion is an unspeakable tragedy,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest AIDS healthcare provider in the United States, which says it serves 319,000 individuals in 34 countries. “Our heart breaks for their families and loved ones.”
In addition to Lange, a colleague, Jacqueline van Tongeren, was confirmed among the dead, according to the Academic Medical Center hospital in Amsterdam, where the pair worked. “Joep was a man who knew no barriers,” the hospital said in a statement. “He was a great inspiration for everybody who wanted to do something about the AIDS tragedy in Africa and Asia.”
Glenn Thomas, 49, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, was also on the flight and headed to the AIDS conference. He had worked for WHO for a decade, becoming one of the voices explaining AIDS policy and efforts after he left a job with the BBC.
“Glenn will be remembered for his ready laugh and his passion for public health,” WHO stated. “He will be greatly missed by those who had the opportunity to know him and work with him.”
Thomas is survived by his partner, Claudio, and his twin sister, Tracey Withers, who said that Thomas “died doing what he loved.”
On her Facebook, Withers said she hadn’t slept all night because she was crying. She later posted, “Twins forever my dear younger bro seeing I was born before you 2 mins xx love you x.”
Obama identified the only known American citizen on the downed plane as Quinn Lucas Schansman, who had Dutch and American citizenship. A Facebook profile appearing to belong to Schansman indicates that he was living in Amsterdam as of April and attending the International Business School at Hogeschool van Amsterdam. A photo posted by a woman who appears to be his girlfriend included numerous condolences from friends.
Rodney Schansman, a cousin of Quinn, said he was born in New York while his father was working in the United States. Rodney Schansman said he believed Quinn was in his early twenties.
He said the family had been waiting for Quinn to arrive in Indonesia, where he would be joining them for a vacation. Some members of the Schansman family were born in and had lived in Indonesia, said Rodney Schansman, and Thomas had hoped to expose his children to some of their family history there.
“They were all going back to see where they were born and raised. Quinn couldn't get there until this flight, and they were waiting on him,” Schansman told The Times by phone from Georgia, choking up while he spoke. “Everyone is just devastated.”
Schansman said Quinn's father, Thomas, now lives in the Netherlands.
Quinn Schansman had been a youth soccer player with the team SV Olympia '25 in Hilversum, the Netherlands. “We can barely contain the news. We wish the relatives, friends and acquaintances much strength to cope with this unimaginable loss, this huge blow,” a team statement said. “The disaster in the Ukraine is a huge crater that slammed into a close Olympia community,” the club said.
Another passenger with American connections, Karlijn Keijzer, 25, of Amsterdam, was a doctoral student in chemistry at Indiana University and an avid rower who once competed on the women’s varsity rowing team, the school said. She had also earned her master’s degree at Indiana.
Keijzer was a member of Indiana’s varsity 8 crew during its 2011 season. “The Indiana rowing family is deeply saddened by the news of Karlijn’s sudden passing,” said rowing Coach Steve Peterson. “She came to us for one year as a graduate student and truly wanted to pursue rowing. That year was the first year we really started to make a mark … and she was a huge reason for it.”
At a televised news conference Friday, a Malaysia Airlines official gave the latest breakdown of those who died. In addition to the 189 Dutch, which includes Schansman, there were 29 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine from Britain, four each from Germany and Belgium, three from the Philippines and one each from Canada and New Zealand. The nationalities of several passengers have yet to be verified, and officials said other passengers may turn out to have dual citizenship.
The disaster over Ukraine was the second major tragedy this year involving a Malaysia Airlines flight. In March, Flight 370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and its 241 passengers and crew were all lost. No sign of the plane has been found.
For one Australian family, the disasters on opposite sides of the world will be forever linked.
Kaylene Mann's brother Rod Burrows and sister-in-law Mary Burrows were on board Flight 370 when it vanished in March. On Friday, Mann told the Associated Press that the family had just found out that her stepdaughter, Maree Rizk, was killed on Flight 17.
“It's just brought everyone, everything back,” said Greg Burrows, Mann's brother. “It's just ... ripped our guts again.”
Follow @latimesmuskal for national news.