July 18, 2014
By now, you've almost certainly heard the news: Several of the people who lost their lives in the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine were on their way to the same place where I am now: Melbourne, Australia, to be a part of the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014).
I don't think the reality has sunk in yet for many of us here. It's too fresh, too unreal. There are pre-conference events taking place, previously planned gatherings continuing on. People are smiling, though many of them likely feel that they should not be. People are warmly greeting friends and colleagues they haven't seen in months or years, while wondering silently if this may be the last time they ever see them.
It's a strange thing: In the vast global community of those who fight HIV/AIDS, death is an ever-present enemy. We lose people to HIV every day -- by the thousands, in fact. So many deaths to HIV, day in and day out, for so many years now. We've become inured to it. But that's only because we can see it coming.
That's not to say we accept the millions upon millions of lives that HIV has taken from us. Never that. But what we call our "war on HIV," as though the untold number of virions out there were even aware a strategic assault was taking place against their existence, has gone on so long now, with so many twists and turns, that it has become an endless, mind-numbing procession of loss.
It is a fact to be endured, because we have no choice: As we trudge down this road, forever seeking its end, we will continue to walk past the bodies of the ever-growing number of people we couldn't save from the virus. We fight premature death, but we also expect it.
Yet we don't expect it to come like this.
Although most of the names of the flight's passengers have yet to be officially released, one of the first casualties to be confirmed was Joep Lange, M.D., Ph.D., a former president of the International AIDS Society, who had been at the forefront of HIV research since the earliest years of the known epidemic. He, and the others on the flight headed to AIDS 2014, refused to accept the inexorable toll that HIV continues to take on humanity, and chose to fly halfway around the world to find and share new ways to stop it from doing so.
It's in recognition of this nobility that the International AIDS Society announced that "the conference will go ahead as planned" while also including "opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost."
Groundbreaking new research will still be presented -- though there will be a few more empty spots at plenary tables or standing in front of study posters. Wisdom and experience will still be shared -- though there will be less of it to go around, and fewer ears to hear it. Protests and marches will still take place, though there will be fewer hands to hold up placards and fewer feet walking down Melbourne's streets in support of the cause.
But we will do what we always do when we lose people in the fight against HIV: We'll hurt, and we'll mourn, and we'll remember. And we'll keep going, because even if HIV isn't aware of the fact, we've got a war to win against it.
[UPDATE 7/19: The introduction of this piece has been adjusted after early media reports, which suggested that more than 100 of those aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had been AIDS 2014 conference delegates, were deemed to have been incorrect.]
Myles Helfand is the editorial director of TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Myles on Twitter: @MylesatTheBody.
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