IU researcher at AIDS conference; learns of loss of colleagues

People walk amongst the debris, at the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, Thursday, July 17, 2014. A Ukrainian official said a passenger plane carrying 298 people was shot down Thursday as it flew over the country and plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village in eastern Ukraine. Malaysia Airlines tweeted that it lost contact with one of its flights as it was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Ukrainian airspace. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WISH) – Around 100 AIDS and HIV researchers who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others were among the 298 people aboard Malaysia Flight MH 17 that was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday.

Small memorials from around the world honor those researchers who were on their way to Australia for the 20th annual International Conference on AIDS and HIV.

24-Hour News 8 spoke with an Indiana University researcher who was already at that conference in Melbourne, Australia when she learned the news.

Rachel Vreeman is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and the Co-Director of Pediatric Research for the school’s AMPATH partnership in Kenya.

She says she found out about the plane crash Friday morning in Australia, as she arrived at a workshop.

“As we were arriving early in the morning, around 7:30, we began to hear news about this plane crash, then immediately followed by the news that some of the prominent HIV researchers who many of us know were actually on the plane,” said Vreeman.

“I think initially everyone was in shock, but as we began to hear that there were more and more researchers we were hearing of, we started understanding the weight of what had happened, and became more and more sad,” she added.

Vreeman says they’ve held moments of silence for the victims, many names she recognizes, including the former president of the International AIDS society, Dr. Joep Lange and his wife.

“Dr. Lange was one of the pioneers for how we prevent HIV infections in babies who are born to pregnant women with HIV, so it was just an incredibly sad loss for us,” she said.

Vreeman adds they’re also thinking about the impact of the loss in a field many have devoted their lives to.

“Thinking about what this might mean, more broadly for the work we’re trying to do, for the questions that won’t be answered. For the families and friends and dear ones of those who were lost. It reminds us that life is short,” she said.

“It certainly could be a setback. In the scheme of the world, there are not so many people who are doing HIV research. It takes a long time for them to be trained and prepared so we really miss those that we lose. They’re irreplaceable in that way,” said Vreeman.

Vreeman says the conference officially starts Sunday and runs through Friday in Australia. It’s still scheduled to go on as planned.

The news has reached around the world to others who’ve devoted their lives to HIV/AIDS research. A Purdue professor who also studies HIV and AIDS said he just heard the news as well.

“This is a tremendous tragedy for AIDS research. So many prominent researchers, they’re global leaders. They’ve devoted their entire life to tackling HIV and AIDS, curing AIDS, and saving lives,” said Dr. Arun Ghosh, a Purdue Professor of Organic Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry.

Thomas Bartenbach, Executive Director of the Damien Center in Indianapolis, also released a statement Friday. It reads:

“The Damien Center is deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of the AIDS researchers and advocates on flight MH17.  Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends. It seems as if the AIDS epidemic has always been shrouded in loss, a reminder of early days gone by. Because of the very work of these researchers who dedicated their lives to the treatment of HIV/AIDS, we have of late seen a turn in the tide of HIV from a death sentence to a chronic illness. The loss of these men and women is a significant setback to their work and the organizations they partnered with.”

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