Dr. Joep Lange of the Netherlands, a leading AIDS researcher, often visited Boston to recruit physicians and researchers for his campaign against the deadly virus. He wanted Massachusetts’ best doctors to help him make antiretroviral drugs accessible to the world’s poorest populations.
One of those doctors was Dr. Martin Hirsch, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital on the front line in the battle against AIDS. After he learned that Lange was among the 298 killed on the Malaysian airlines flight shot down Thursday in eastern Ukraine, he mourned the loss of a pioneering AIDS researcher, as well as a good friend.
Hirsch knew that the fight against AIDS would suffer without one of its most innovative and compassionate leaders.
“He was a leading light, and he was a person who pushed probably as hard or harder than anyone for equity in the field, to make the drugs that we were using in the US and Netherlands available at a low cost for people in underserved areas of the world,” said Hirsch, who knew Lange for more than 20 years.
Lange, 59, a former president of the International AIDS Society and executive scientific director of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development, was one of several researchers on the downed plane who were on their way to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, meeting organizers said.
Early-arriving attendees were stunned by news of the tragedy, with some milling about in tears. But the conference is still scheduled to start Sunday.
Dr. Dan Barouch, chief of the division of vaccine research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, is in Melbourne for the conference. He said the mood has been somber and attendees have been anxious as they wait to hear who else was on the flight.
“To some extent, tragedies help people reaffirm the resolve to the causes the victims had,” said Barouch, who knew Lange for many years. “These were people trying to make the world a better place.”
The World Health Organization confirmed Friday that Glenn Thomas, 49, a communications officer, had also been aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. So had Pim de Kuijer, 32, a Dutch AIDS activist and former European Commission diplomat, and Jacqueline van Tongeren, 64, Lange’s partner and a communications director at his Amsterdam institute.
Michel Sidibé — executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations agency overseeing efforts to combat the disease — said in a statement that it is believed that “some of the finest academics, health care workers, and activists in the AIDS response” were among the passengers.
“We are bracing ourselves to hear of the deaths of others who worked in the AIDS response,” he said. “The deaths of so many committed people working against HIV will be a great loss for the AIDS response.”
Hirsch served on the International AIDS Society’s board of directors when Lange was president from 2002 to 2004, and the two worked together on the journal Antiviral Therapy, where Lange had been serving as co-editor in chief.
Hundreds of thousands of people in underserved parts of the world were taking antiretroviral drugs when Lange became president of the society, Hirsch said. Now, about 12 million people in these areas are treated, and Lange “deserves as much credit as anybody for this change in attitude,” Hirsch said.
Lange was eulogized Thursday night at a dinner for AIDS researchers in Melbourne. Dr. David Margolis, an AIDS researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who attended the dinner, said speakers had recalled a quotation by Lange: “If we can get a cold can of Coke to any part of Africa, we can certainly deliver AIDS treatment.”
AIDS research organizations around the world joined in mourning Lange.
“Joep Lange was a towering presence in the fight against AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic and a wonderful friend, colleague, and teacher,” Kevin Robert Frost, chief executive of the AIDS research nonprofit amfAR, said in a statement. “He inspired legions of AIDS researchers, health care workers, and activists and was an inspiration to me personally. He will be sorely missed.”
Hirsch and Lange first met in 1992, when they were planning an International AIDS Conference in Boston. They ultimately moved the conference to Amsterdam because the United States banned HIV-
positive travelers from entering the country.
Hirsch often worked with Lange when he visited Boston.
“He’s a warm person with a great sense of humor, great wisdom, and an extremely hard worker who had empathy for the underserved parts of the world, as well as for the developed world,” Hirsch said.
The pain is familiar for Hirsch, who lost a Harvard AIDS research colleague in 1998 in a plane crash. Dr. Jonathan Mann, who spent much of his career at the Harvard School of Public Health and founded the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS, was on his way to Geneva to attend a series of global strategy sessions on AIDS when his plane crashed near Nova Scotia.