Paul A. Volberding, MD, is the Chief Medical Editor of Infectious Disease News and a professor in the department of medicine and director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Volberding is the past president of the International AIDS Conference.

AIDS conference, overshadowed by tragedy, looks to the future

The International AIDS Conference is the biannual gathering convened by the International AIDS Society (IAS) which serves to inform the entire world on our progress in the fight against the HIV epidemic. The conference is held in different regions — this year in Melbourne, Australia — allowing a focus on the social, political and scientific challenges of work in that place. Each conference develops its own flavor, affected by the state of the art in HIV science as well as by outside forces and events. Before each conference many speculate what unique issues will come to the fore. Those guesses are quite often wrong. This year, there is unfortunately little question about the conference message. This year, we will spend our time remembering our dear friend and colleague Joep Lange, MD, PhD, who along with nearly 300 others was lost in the senseless violence of the terrorist destruction of the Malaysian Airlines flight bringing him to this very conference.

Joep, like me a past president of the IAS, was a true leader of the global battle against HIV and a truly tireless advocate for universal HIV care access. He helped create programs in resource-limited settings throughout the world to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and was focused throughout his career on improving HIV treatment access. Joep was a quiet and kind person who could also be firm (sometimes fierce) when confronting ill-informed political figures and policies. He was joined in death with his constant colleague and partner Jacqueline van Tongeren, herself a strong advocate for HIV causes.

The conference opened with a moving tribute to Joep, Jacqueline and other delegates murdered over Ukraine but with a call to recommit to the fight against the epidemic. Several speakers noted that another HIV pioneer, Jonathan Mann, also lost his life in an air disaster, the Swiss Air crash in 1998 en route to an AIDS conference. Jonathan was an early potent voice for including a human rights perspective in controlling the epidemic.

We look forward to this meeting despite the appalling situation and expect to hear news about research into a cure, better care access in economically constrained countries and the need to protect the rights of the most vulnerable populations, including men who have sex with men, sex workers, girls and women and injection drug users.

This will be a memorable conference with deep connections to evolving world events.