Joep Lange.

Joep Lange. Photo:

The Malaysia Airlines plane crash in Ukraine has claimed the lives of some of the world’s top medical researchers, including the former head of the International AIDS Society, while heading to Melbourne for a major conference.

Organisers of the International AIDS Conference, due to begin next week in Melbourne, have confirmed that a number of expected attendees were on the plane that went down near the Russia-Ukraine border.

“A number of colleagues and friends en route to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference taking place in Melbourne, Australia were on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17  flight that has crashed over Ukraine,” conference manager Sian Bowen said in a statement.


“At this incredibly sad and sensitive time the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy.”

Flight MH-17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was due to connect with another Malaysia Airlines flight scheduled to arrive in Melbourne on Friday night. Many medical researchers have expressed sympathy online on hearing that both World Health Organisation (WHO) staff and well-known HIV researchers had died in the crash.

Friends and colleagues of Joep Lange, a Dutch HIV researcher, have taken to social media to express shock that he was believed to be among the victims of the plane crash. Dr Lange had been researching HIV for 30 years and was the past president of the International AIDS Society.

‘‘He was a kind man and a true humanitarian,’’ US medical professor Seema Yasmin wrote in a series of tweets dedicated to him.

‘‘How do we measure how much a person has done for humanity? People like Joep change the course of epidemics.’’

Dr Yasmin could not be immediately contacted.

UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe said he was saddened to hear so many AIDS conference attendees died in the crash.

‘‘My thoughts & prayers to families of those tragically lost on flight #MH17,’’ he tweeted.

Also believed to be among the victims is Glenn Thomas, a WHO media adviser. Several of his colleagues have expressed shock at his death on Twitter.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she understood a number of the victims were heading to the AIDS conference, but she had no further details.

Greens Senator Christine Milne expressed her shock at such a loss to the HIV-AIDS community.

‘‘The ramifications go to all the people who are at that conference this weekend and no doubt as more details emerge this tragedy will touch many, many Australians,’’ she told the Senate.

Emails sent to several WHO staff prompted out of office replies stating they were en route to Melbourne for the AIDS conference. Representatives from WHO could not be immediately contacted.

Mark Gettleson, a London-based campaigner, tweeted that AIDS activists were also heading from Europe too Melbourne.

‘‘Several on #MH17 flight were @STOPAIDS activists en route to #AIDS2014 conference in Melbourne, fighting to save lives. Tragic,’’ he wrote.

The International AIDS Conference is now in its 20th year. Former US president Bill Clinton, Sir Bob Geldof, the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Mark Dybul, Indonesian Health Minister Nafsiam Mboi, Swedish Ambassador for Global Health Anders Nordstrom and UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe are down as speakers at the conference.

– with AAP