For thousands of Batswana living with HIV, one of the people they will forever remain indebted to is Dr. Joep Lange, a prominent Dutch AIDS researcher who died two weeks ago when the plane he was travelling in was shot down with a missile over Ukraine.
Lange was a key figure in the development of the drug zidovudine (marketed under the brand name Retrovir) for AIDS therapy. He led early tests on the antiretroviral, which proved to be the first breakthrough in AIDS therapy. Zidovudine significantly reduces the replication of the virus in patients and leads to clinical and immunologic improvements.
An early AIDS researcher, Lange studied the Botswana situation very closely and ahead of the 2004 International AIDS Society (IAS) conference in Bangkok, Thailand, gave a keynote address at a workshop held in Amsterdam where he referenced the Botswana situation. He told his audience that anti-retrovirals were the only cost effective treatment for HIV and AIDS, especially that education alone didn’t work. With regard to the latter point, he gave Botswana an example where the epidemic had grown to be massive despite enormous efforts to raise awareness. Minutes of that meeting quote him as saying: “There is still widespread reluctance to use (male) condoms, which are still not as available as they need to be, and female condoms are not really an attractive alternative. Use of ARVs to prevent sexual transmission might be more likely to work than microbicides, and could incidentally be more woman controlled, but still need to be proven effective and safe for widespread use.” At this time he was IAS president and Botswana had the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.
Addressing the IAS conference proper the following year, he alerted the international community to the desperate AIDS situation in Southern Africa: “South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland will be potential basket cases if they don’t act, and in the case of Botswana, if it doesn’t act, it will cease to exist.”
In 2006, he served as academic editor for a research paper titled “Routine HIV Testing in Botswana: A Population-Based Study on Attitudes, Practices, and Human Rights Concerns”. The paper was published in PLOS, a peer-reviewed weekly medical journal and its authorship was an international collaboration that included professors Sheila Tlou and Nthabiseng Phaladze, both Batswana nursing education scholars.
Last year, Lange attended the Eighth Southern African HIV & TB Drug Resistance and Treatment Monitoring Workshop in Bloemfontein, South Africa in his position as the Executive Director of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development programme. Representatives from Ministry of Health and the Botswana chapter of the African Society for Laboratory Medicine also attended. The workshop targeted clinicians, clinical virologists, nurses, medical students and researchers working in the public and private sector who are involved in the treatment of patients with HIV and TB in Southern Africa.
Lange died en route to Melbourne to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference, which started last Sunday and ended yesterday. Other leading HIV/AIDS researchers aboard the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines plane also perished in the accident. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation quotes Trevor Stratton, an HIV/AIDS consultant, as saying about this tragedy: “The cure for AIDS may have been on that plane, we just don’t know. You can’t just help but wonder about the kind of expertise on that plane.”