Remembering the Researchers and Activists Lost Aboard MH17

By Michael Dumiak

HIV still claims the lives of more than a million people a year. But even within a community so used to mourning, there are lasting signs of shock over the tragedy of July 17, when noted AIDS researcher Joep Lange, his partner and Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development communications director Jacqueline van Tongeren, former AIDS Action Europe workers Lucie van Mens and Martine de Schutter, lobbyist Pim de Kuijer, and World Health Organization (WHO) media coordinator Glenn Thomas died along with 292 others in the downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 en route to the 2014 International AIDS Society Conference in Melbourne, Australia (see Spotlight, this issue).


As that summer day fades, Elly Katabira, a medical professor at Makerere University in Uganda, has no problem conjuring his first meeting with Lange. “He came to Kampala for a site visit in 1992. This was his first travel to Africa,” Katabira remembers. “He had just joined the World Health Organization and was in charge of a clinical trial.” The KEMRON trial, which Lange recalls in a moving essay called Africa on the Rise, debunked a fake AIDS remedy being peddled by Kenyan strongman Daniel Arap Moi. Katabira worked with Lange as principal investigator. “I remember his desire to see better health care delivered to the poor, through better access to medicines and well-trained health workers.”

Joep Lange, who was 59, started his clinical career in 1981 after receiving his medical degree from the University of Amsterdam. He was an early backer of the “cocktail” approach to antiretroviral therapy, and a powerful force in efforts to both lower overall treatment costs and ensure access in poor communities in the west and in sub-Saharan Africa. Michael Merson, now director of the Duke Global Health Institute, recruited Joep to the WHO to run drug development for the Global AIDS Program. “Advocating for greater access to antiretroviral drugs is one of his greatest contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS,” he says. “I came to know him as an extremely kind, intelligent, and compassionate man.”

Chelsea Polis, a young epidemiologist now taking up a senior research associate’s post at the Guttmacher Institute, met Lange and van Tongeren this summer in Lusaka, Zambia, at a workshop called INTEREST: the International Workshop on HIV Treatment, Pathogenesis and Prevention Research in Resource-poor Settings. Lange had invited Polis to speak. “I’m sensitive to how folks treat people in service industries. I noticed they were both very considerate,” she recalls. “I liked them both right away.” Lange had a steely side as well, says Gregg Gonsalves, co-director of Yale University’s Global Health Justice Partnership. “He was a scientist. But the way he talked about the need to get therapies to developing countries, he was like an activist.” He wasn’t afraid to lead amid controversy—such as in criticizing protesters who were trying to disrupt trials on pre-exposure prophylaxis, the use of antiretroviral drugs to prevent HIV infection.

Everyone who spoke about Lange for this article mentioned his exceptional desire and ability to be a part of both high-level research and the everyday world of people bearing the brunt of the HIV pandemic. He showed these qualities early on, as North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences communications director David Kroll shows in writing about Lange’s basic research. For his first peer-reviewed published research, the 1984 Lancet articleAmprolium for Coccidiosis in AIDS, Lange chose a case study based on his clinical work that shows his creativity with ideas and how he treats people who are suffering.

Lucie van Mens, who also died on MH17, found her calling working with outsiders as well. A former program director with the Dutch STOP AIDS NOW! group, van Mens set up outreach and health care initiatives for sex workers and people in red light districts across Europe before joining the Female Health Company to make female condoms available, especially in African countries. “We lost so many people who work on HIV/AIDS in that crash,” Gonsalves said.

International HIV/AIDS Alliance director Alvaro Bermejo worked with two others lost in the downed plane, lobbyist Pim de Kuijer and Bridging the Gaps’ Martine de Schutter. “‘I’m Pim, I’m passionate about policy’ was definitely his catchphrase,” Bermejo says. “You could just tell he got into the nitty-gritty of political processes and thrived on them. And we recently saw Martine on a sunny day in June in Amsterdam. She was talking about her hopes for what she could bring to the work with marginalized groups most at risk of HIV.”

Both Gonsalves and Bermejo mourn the hurt to what is still an HIV community, what Bermejo even calls a movement. “The AIDS response loses many of its leaders: to stigma, violence, planes, to AIDS itself. It might not feel like this in some places but we continue to lose 1.5 million people to AIDS every year,” he says. “We often take our colleagues for granted, and when you lose them and reflect on the work that they do, you really appreciate the difference they make.”

Merson looks back to Lange’s June visit to the Duke Global Health Institute. Together they planned a new health and technology initiative focused on urban settings. It will launch later this fall.

Michael Dumiak reports on global science, technology, and public health and is based in Berlin.