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Penn Medicine Remembers Victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight: A Loss to the HIV/AIDS Community

RibbonWHYY’s Radio Times’ show last Friday focused on much of the progress that’s been made in the world of HIV/AIDS research and care, but there was one terrible set back that had to be addressed.  Earlier that morning, news broke that the Malaysia Airlines plane struck down over the Ukraine was carrying people headed to the 2014 International AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia —from activists to researchers, all an integral part of the fight against AIDS. 

“This is a tragedy for everyone who lost their lives and for their families and friends,” said guest Ian Frank, MD, a professor in the division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Clinical/Therapeutics Program of Penn's Center for AIDS Research, who has spent most of his career studying and treating patients with HIV/AIDS. “And the HIV community has taken a huge blow.”

At least six conference delegates died that day, most from the Netherlands. Among them were Martine de Schutter, from Bridging the Gaps, a Dutch organization that works on HIV prevention and treatment, Pim de Kuijer, from the Stop AIDS Now group, and Lucie van Mens, MD, of the Female Health Company (FHC). A hands-on advocate for female sexual health, Mens was the driving force behind FHC’s partners’ dedicated female condom programs in Africa, the organization said.

One deceased passenger Frank discussed during the show was Joep Lange, a prominent Dutch HIV doctor and scientist whose death has been heavily reported in the news.  Involved with HIV since 1983, Lange was a pioneer in the field who spearheaded several pivotal antiretroviral therapy trials and had a strong commitment to the development of affordable treatments in resource-poor countries. The work he led showed how antiretroviral drugs could dramatically reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission.

“He was understated, had a great, dry sense of humor, and always spoke honestly and did the right thing, despite academic or commercial interests that may have swayed him otherwise,” Frank later told me.

Pablo Tebas, MD, a professor in the division of Infectious Diseases, got to know Lange well during the last 15 or so years while attending the same infectious disease conferences and meetings all around the world. “He was passionate about things,” Tebas said.

A proponent of PrEP, a pre-exposure prophylaxis offered to HIV-negative people at high-risk for contracting the disease, Lange was vocal when debating whether it should be part of the standard HIV prevention package for men who have sex with men. The preventative treatment wasn’t as well-supported at the time as it is today, though still heavily debated.  It would be unethical to withhold it, Lange said two years ago at an AIDS conference in Bangkok, amidst arguments on how it would negatively affect people’s behavior.

“He was outspoken and didn’t always say things people agreed with, but his heart was in the right place,” Tebas said. “He was always an advocate for the patients.”

Frank WHYY

Infectious disease doctor Ian Frank joined WHYY’s Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane on Friday, July 18 for a show on HIV/AIDS

Lange and the others continue to fill headlines and stories around the world, with their contributions to the HIV community—the world, really—and passion widely noted. Jacqueline van Tongeren, the communications director of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Lange’s partner, also died that day.

“We are going to feel this loss,” Tebas said.

The HIV community is no stranger, unfortunately, to airplane tragedies, Tebas and Frank noted.  In 1988, Irving Sigel, a biochemist who helped lead the team that developed Indinavir, an important HIV protease inhibitor that revolutionized therapy in the mid-1990s, died in the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Ten years later, Jonathan Mann, the first dean of Drexel's School of Public Health, and his wife, Mary Lou Clements, a vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins, died in a Swissair plane crash off Nova Scotia.

“Their deaths should be a reminder of why we do what we do,” Frank said. “To help prevent HIV infection and improve the lives of those with the disease.” 

Penn Medicine remembers all the victims of the plane crash and extends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives.


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