With heavy hearts, officials with AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) on July 18 paid tribute to the AIDS/HIV advocates who died when a missile struck Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in Ukraine the day prior.
According to the airline, 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers were on the aircraft, which was heading to Kuala Lumpur International Airport from Amsterdam. While the identity of the perpetrators remains in question, U.S. officials believe the tragedy was the work of pro-Russian separatists.
Last Friday, AHF staffers were under the impression that more than 100 AIDS advocates and researchers had perished in the plane crash. That figure was reduced to six in the following days, which is still equally devastating, an AHF representative said.
“In this fight, as we go through the battle day-to-day, we’re not alone and we do pour our hearts and our sympathies to those who lost their lives fighting for others,” the foundation’s senior director of marketing, Samantha Granberry, told a group of staff members at the AHF Department of Medicine on Western Avenue.
One by one, staff members signed posters that honored the lives of the confirmed dead. They also placed flowers and lit candles in honor of the victims.
The HIV/AIDS advocates were traveling to Melbourne, Australia, where the 20th International AIDS Conference began on Sunday. Herbert Fisher, a member of AHF’s Global Department, said he has attended several of the conferences, but he did not know any of the victims.
“I think it’s significant — deeply significant,” he said of the memorial. “You know, we all struggle every single day to fight a virus, just a virus. To actually have some human factor intrude into that — to have to actually overcome that as well — it really is … a hard thing to deal with. By actually doing things like this, by memorializing the folks that this happened to, it really helps a lot. It does. It’s soul cleansing.”
About seven people from AHF’s Los Angeles office, including chief of global advocacy and policy Terri Ford and communications director Ged Kenslea, were en route to the conference last Friday. President Michael Weinstein said he had only corresponded with the staff members through e-mail.
“As the world tries to make sense of a senseless act — an act by barbarians — we felt it was important to honor the memory [of the victims],” he said.
Every two years, the best minds in the fight against AIDS gather at the conference to share information and bring attention to the disease, which still kills 1.5 million people per year, Weinstein said.
“While every life is precious, while every passenger on that plane has loved ones that are grieving, whereas every AIDS advocate — no matter how humble their circumstance — is extremely important, I have to take special note of the life of Dr. Joep Lange,” he said.
Weinstein said he had the “great good fortune” of working with Lange, who previously served as the president of the International AIDS Society, which hosts the conference every year.
“He was someone of high stature and somebody of high position, and yet he was a very approachable, humble man,” he said. “What distinguished him from many others was the fact that his greatest passion was to bring HIV treatment to people in the developing world.”
A photo of Weinstein and Lange was on display. Weinstein said the photo was from the conference in Barcelona in 2002, when the world community opted to support AIDS treatment in the developing world. At the time, a small number of people in such countries were being treated; now, approximately 12 million receive care, he said.
“He was certainly a major contributor to that,” Weinstein added. “The world of AIDS advocates is a relatively small one, and so, when a giant like Joep Lange is taken … it really hurts our heart a great deal.”
He mentioned Jonathan Mann, a World Health Organization official who died in an airplane crash in 1998.
Weinstein said the memorial serves as a way for people in Los Angeles who have devoted their lives to fight AIDS to have a place to go to express their grief and loss. He said AHF has 2,800 employees worldwide, and many travel frequently — sometimes in conflict zones.
“We understand what that risk is, and we make a choice to take it because we believe so strongly in this cause,” Weinstein said, adding that AHF has facilities in Crimea, Kenya, Nigeria and other conflict zones. “Those staff are at risk every single day.”
He said the foundation treats 320,000 patients worldwide every year, and thousands of those patients are living on the edge of survival every day.
“This is a moment where the basic essential humanity that we have as a world community comes into focus and we have to focus on what’s truly important, and that is the preservation of human life,” Weinstein said.
He thanked staff members for organizing the memorial on such short notice. After he spoke, Granberry asked those in attendance to hold hands in a moment of solidarity.
“As Michael said, it could have been any one of us,” she said, adding that a human relations notification led staffers to wonder whether Kenslea had been a victim. “These are people’s co-workers, loved ones, confidants, and in this moment of solidarity, we just come here today in acknowledgment of the soldiers that lost their lives in the war against AIDS and HIV that is not over. This will only make us all stronger.”
AHF has created a memorial page for the victims at www.aidshealth.org/archives/18355.
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