HIV/Aids workers struggle with loss of colleagues in Ukraine crash

Prof Ceppie Merry of TCD describes colleague on flight as ‘visionary’ fighter against Aids

Chris Beyrer (centre), president-elect of the International Aids Society, after reading a statement today outside the venue where the 20th International Aids Conference is to be held in Melbourne, Australia. Several delegates set to attend the conference were travelling on the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in eastern Ukraine with all lives lost. Photograph: Joe Castro/EPA

Chris Beyrer (centre), president-elect of the International Aids Society, after reading a statement today outside the venue where the 20th International Aids Conference is to be held in Melbourne, Australia. Several delegates set to attend the conference were travelling on the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in eastern Ukraine with all lives lost. Photograph: Joe Castro/EPA

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 16:07

Those working in HIV and Aids research and involved in efforts to improve treatment access in the developing world are struggling to comprehend the loss of expertise arising from the downing in Ukraine yesterday of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

The research community fears that upwards of 100 scientists, NGO staff and experts in HIV and its treatment were lost in the crash. Many were on their way to the International Aids Society annual conference in Melbourne, due to start this Sunday.

The conference will go ahead as planned despite the crash, a statement from the society said. It was attempting to help authorities establish how many conference delegates were on flight MH17.

“In recognition of our colleagues’ dedication to the fight against HIV/Aids, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost,” the society said in a statement.

One among them is Prof Joep Lange of the University of Amsterdam, who was a past president of the society.

He was described as a “visionary” and a central figure in the fight against Aids by a research colleague from Ireland, Prof Ceppie Merry of the Trinity College Dublin School of Medicine. “He was very involved with a number of studies with us and we would like to honour his amazing contribution to HIV medicine,” Prof Merry said this afternoon. (fri)

“Joep would have been a real visionary. Back in 2000 he advocated treating Aids in Africa, something that was considered a career breaker at the time,” she said. She first met him in 1996. “I lived in Uganda for eight years and worked on a number of projects with Joep.”

She described him as “tenacious” and determined in marshalling the effort to control HIV and to treat Aids-related illnesses. When he got bogged down in red tape he set up his own NGO to speed things along, she said. “He was not going to wait for something to happen he made it happen.”

He was interested in the research but also in improving quality of life. “He wanted to know ‘How can I help the woman in the village?’,” she said.

He was a professor at the University of Amsterdam and was based at the university’s academic medical centre.

“He had disruptive thinking in abundance. He would have been supervising huge numbers of projects around the world. He pretty much lived on the aircraft. He totally dedicated his life to this,” she added. “I still have projects under way with him.”

Prof Merry is based at Trinity, but has ongoing affiliations with Makerere University in Uganda and Northwestern University in Chicago.