Honoring the Lives of Two Pioneering AIDS Researchers Lost in MH17 

We're told not to ponder the great "what ifs" in life. Yet in the face of great tragedy, it's hard not to fixate on the possibilities of a parallel universe where such an atrocity hasn't occurred.

The attack of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is one of those instances. Of the 298 people aboard, about 100 were on their way to an AIDS conference in Australia. Two of these were Joep Lange and Jacqueline van Tongeren, whose achievements we honor here.

Joep Lange

To say Lange was an accomplished AIDS researcher undermines just how groundbreaking his work in the field was. Lange wasn't new to the AIDS research game: He had been involved since 1983. This means that during the arc of Lange's career, he witnessed five different U.S. presidents in office—the first of whom, Reagan, was unwilling to even address AIDS

During this time, Lange was both the "architect and principal investigator" of trials in antiretroviral therapy. How does this process work? Essentially, HIV destroys CD4 cells, which help the immune system fight infections. When the CD4 count falls to 200 per cubic millimeter of blood, AIDS is diagnosed. Antiretroviral therapy slows down this mass cell extinction, and sufferers on this treatment can extend their lives significantly. Amazingly, HIV positive moms-to-be can also use antiretroviral therapy to prevent passing the virus on to their baby. With extra precautions added, this can curb the transmission of the disease. Lange worked on these significant studies globally. 

Not only was Lange instrumental in these efforts, but he served in several prestigious roles, including as president of the International AIDS Society. And he founded and served as chairman of PharmAccess, a foundation dedicated to providing affordable health care in Africa. Lange's influential studies and findings about AIDS have also been published several times.

Jacqueline van Tongeren

While news reports are sketchy on the details, it's clear that Lange and van Tongeren were more than just colleagues, with the Telegraph even reporting that they were married. This medical power couple met when van Tongeren was organizing AIDS initiatives and events. 

At the time of their deaths, van Tongeren held the position of Head of Communications at the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development. This non-profit is aimed at promoting quality healthcare for all. AIGHD's programs and partnerships led the couple all over the world, though most of their work occurred in Africa. Executing these projects was one of van Tongeren's primary responsibilities, and her background as an AIDS nurse made her ideally suited to the role. Van Tongeren also worked alongside Lange at PharmAccess.
While we struggle to understand this tragedy, we remain optimistic that the legacy of Lange and van Tongeren will inspire others to pursue work in this world-changing field. 

Image: ThinkStock

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