MH17 victim Joep Lange was an AIDS expert who could 'change the course of epidemics'

Close colleagues: UNSW Professor David Cooper (left), Professor Praphan Phanuphak and Dr Joep Lange.
Close colleagues: UNSW Professor David Cooper (left), Professor Praphan Phanuphak and Dr Joep Lange.

He dedicated his life to solving a world crisis - only to be killed in another.

World-renowned AIDS researcher Joep Lange, 60, had been flying to Melbourne to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference when the commercial airliner was shot down during the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Dr Lange, along with his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, are among the 298 victims of Malaysia Flight 17, his colleagues have been told. He leaves behind five children.

Dr Lange’s death has devastated fellow medical researchers, health workers and activists in the HIV/AIDS community, who had watched his work over three decades help tens of thousands of people.

Dutch-born Dr Lange was the former president of the International AIDS Society, which puts on the bi-annual conference, and helped make major advancements in affordable HIV treatments, especially in developing nations.

"The HIV/AIDS movement has truly lost a giant," Michael Kessler of the International AIDS Society (IAS) said in a statement.

Professor Daniel R. Kuritzkes of Harvard Medical School, who arrived in Melbourne on Friday, said Dr Lange was one of his closest colleagues and cherished friends. He called him an "extraordinary figure".

"Joep was a visionary leader whose work touched on nearly every aspect of HIV research, care and policy," Professor Kuritzkes said.

"He was never afraid to challenge established scientific dogma in order to move the field forward, or to challenge governments and their leaders when their commitment to HIV/AIDS flagged or was inadequate.

"He will be remembered as a crusading investigator, clinician, policy maker and humanitarian. His death, and the deaths of the other AIDS researchers on the plane leaves an immense void.who "worked tirelessly to ensure global access to antiretroviral therapy."

University of Texas Public Health Professor Seema Yasmine wrote on Twitter that Dr Lange was "a kind man" and "a true humanitarian". "How do we measure how much a person has done for humanity?" she wrote. "People like Joep change the course of epidemics."

Preventing HIV infection rates from spreading throughout Asia was one of Dr Lange’s main goals, said UNSW Professor David Cooper, one of his closest colleagues, who was told of his death at 3am on Friday.

He said Dr Lange’s work in Asia ‘‘will stand as his legacy’’.

Original reports suggested more than 100 delegates were on the plane heading to the 20th International Aids Conference, which more than 14,000 people will attend over the next six days. However it is likely the final number will be much less than that.

Organisers on Saturday confirmed the names of six delegates on the flight, with International AIDS Society president Françoise Barré-Sinoussi saying the extent of their loss was ‘‘hard to comprehend or express.’’

Among the confirmed dead are activists Lucie van Mens and Maria Adriana de Schutter from AIDS Action Europe, along with Pim de Kuijer, a lobbyist for Stop AIDS Now and Glenn Thomas, a media advisor for the World Health Organisation.

"Glenn will be remembered for his ready laugh and his passion for public health," said WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl.

"He will be greatly missed by those who had the opportunity to know him and work with him. He leaves behind his partner Claudio and his twin sister, Tracey."

Organisers decided not to cancel the conference, with about 14,000 delegates due to attend over five days. A candlelight vigil was held in their memory on Friday evening.

“Our colleagues were traveling because of their dedication to bringing an end to AIDS. We will honour their commitment and keep them in our hearts as we begin our program on Sunday,’’ said International AIDS Society executive director Owen Ryan.

In 1996, Dr Lange founded an AIDS research centre in Bangkok with Professor Cooper and Praphan Phanuphak, then head of the Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Centre.

“The joy in collaborating with Joep was that he would always bring a fresh view, a unique take on things, and he never accepted that something was impossible to achieve,’’ he said.

Dr Lange was also the main driver behind the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, where he served as an executive director.

He founded an academic journal, wrote hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, and chaired the PharmAccess Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to affordable HIV therapy in Africa.

This story MH17 victim Joep Lange was an AIDS expert who could 'change the course of epidemics' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.