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AIDS Researcher Who Died in Malaysia Airlines Crash Was A Scientific Hero

Jean Ayissi/AFP/Getty

A considerable, but as-yet unknown number of public health activists and researchers were apparently on Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, headed to the huge international AIDS conference being held in Melbourne, Australia.

Joep Lange, the 2002–2004 president of the International AIDS Society, was one of those among the confirmed dead. A key figure in the Netherlands' outsized contribution in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Lange was one of the world’s most distinguished researchers in this area. An early proponent of combination therapy in HIV treatment, he was a leader in efforts to make HIV medications accessible to low-income patients around the world.

This clip gives you a sense of Lange’s perspective on this epidemic.

Today’s New York Times includes an old quote from Lange, in which he said: “If we can get a cold can of Coke to any part of Africa, we can certainly deliver AIDS treatment.” In the year 2000, Lange founded the PharmAccess Foundation to improve drug access in sub-Saharan Africa.

This vision caught the imagination of President George W. Bush, among others. At that time, many people believed that the obstacles to providing high-quality care in low-resource environments would prove too severe. I was one of those skeptics. Fortunately, people like Bush and Lange proved the skeptics wrong. The efforts of Lange and others contributed to dramatic improvement in HIV prevention, treatment, and care around the world. These efforts made possible the one genuinely shining accomplishment of George W. Bush’s presidency: the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has saved millions of lives.

I never knew Lange personally. Some of my colleagues and acquaintances did know him well. Dozens of emails commending Lange are now making the rounds. In their workmanlike-way, these missives provide a moving tribute to a working scientist and public health professional.

Global HIV/AIDS deaths have markedly declined in recent years—in no small part because of the contributions made by Lange and many others. Still, around the world 4,400 adults and children will die of AIDS today. The work goes on.

Ironically, some of the world’s greatest HIV/AIDS challenges reside 30,000 feet below the point where MH17 was apparently shot down. Ukraine, like Russia, confronts terribly high rates of HIV infection and illness among people who inject drugs. Both Ukraine and Russia made their HIV/AIDS problems so much worse than these problems would otherwise have been. First the Soviet Union, then post-Soviet regimes, rejected humane, evidence-based HIV prevention policies such as methadone maintenance therapies and syringe exchange.

In both Russia and Ukraine, people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men face cruel discrimination and lack of treatment access that accelerates an already-awful epidemic. Xenophobic rejection of presumed-Western HIV prevention approaches and blunt denial of LGBT rights remain key obstacles. These are different forms of brutal incompetence than the kind that blows a plane from the sky. They are no less lethal. Indeed they’ve already cost more lives.

President Obama commented today on the loss of MH17 and the passing of HIV/AIDS researchers:

On board Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, there were apparently nearly 100 researchers and advocates traveling to an international conference in Australia dedicated to combating AIDS/HIV. These were men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others and they were taken from us in a senseless act of violence.

In this world today, we shouldn’t forget that in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these—people who are focused on what can be built rather than what can be destroyed; people who are focused on how they can help people that they’ve never met; people who define themselves not by what makes them different from other people but by the humanity that we hold in common.  It’s important for us to lift them up and to affirm their lives. And it’s time for us to heed their example.

Healing words, on a painful day. 

This piece has been updated.