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HIV/AIDS Researcher Joep Lange Helped to Save Millions of Lives

hiv“There is a disturbing misconception that ‘access for all’ is just a challenge for the developing world,” said Joep Lange, former President of the International AIDS Society, in 2004. “Access to optimal combination therapy remains an urgent issue in the west where alarming levels of resistance to HIV therapies is a ticking time bomb. While people continue to die from AIDS in the western world—with more than 15,000 patients dying in the US in 2003 alone—there is an urgent need to use all drugs currently available to provide the most effective combination treatment for patients.”

Such an impassioned statement was characteristic of Lange, 61, who died in the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash last week. He constantly monitored advances in antiretroviral therapy (ART) that suppresses the HIV virus and stops the progression of HIV disease. He was among the first to see the value of this treatment, encourage its use, and to lobby for the accessibility of ART medications for all in need of them.

Lange also advocated for women’s health rights. For example, he strongly encouraged researchers to develop female-controlled prevention technologies that do not require the male partner’s consent. He also conducted some of the earliest research on how to prevent HIV-positive women from transmitting the virus to their infants.

The Dutch researcher headed the Department of Global Health at the University of Amsterdam, following over 30 years of work as both a doctor and a clinical researcher. He pioneered treatment efforts in Thailand and Africa, always noting where caseloads of the virus were high and then directing his attention to these regions.

His decisions were not always popular. He had to fight certain activists to push forward with many drug trials. In 1992, when fear of HIV/AIDS was rampant, the U.S. government refused to allow HIV-positive foreigners to attend that year’s conference of the International AIDS Society, scheduled to happen in Boston. Defiant Lange moved the entire event to the Netherlands, so that all who wanted to could attend.

Thirteen years later, Lange was a key participant at the conference “Bridging the Sciences: HIV Vaccine Research and Drug Development.” Lange was always building bridges—between researchers, activists, politicians, the media, non-profits, and the public. His partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, shared his work and advocacy interests. The former HIV/AIDS clinical research nurse also died in last week’s crash that additionally claimed the lives of World Health Organization spokesman Glenn Thomas, lobbyist Pim de Kuijer, program manager Martine de Schutter from the Netherlands AIDS Fund, and 293 other victims.

President Barack Obama said of the losses, “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.”