Honoring Our Colleagues And The Fight Against HIV And AIDS After Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

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We were deeply saddened by the senseless loss of MH17 Malaysia Airlines flight 17 on July 17, which had taken off from Amsterdam and was shot down over Ukraine.  Among the lives lost were some of the world’s most prestigious HIV and AIDS researchers and activists who were headed to Melbourne for the International AIDS Conference.

This tragedy hit particularly close to home, as I had spent nine years of my life in The Netherlands, and several of those who died were friends of friends. My heart goes out to their families and colleagues.

One of those lost was Joep Lange, former head of the International AIDS Society and a leading researcher in the fight against AIDS for more than two decades. Lange saw AIDS go from being a fatal illness to a chronic disease in Europe in the 1990s, thanks to life-saving antiretroviral medicine. But he was deeply aware that AIDS remained a death sentence in Africa because those same medicines were not available to the world’s most affected continent. Lange saw the inequity in this, and he also saw a challenge that could be overcome. "If we can get cold Coca–Cola and beer to every remote corner of Africa,” he reasoned, “it should not be impossible to do the same with life-saving drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.”

Lange worked tirelessly on this question, alongside others such as former US President Bill Clinton and current World Bank President Jim Kim. Together, they helped push the price down to the point of affordability, making antiretrovirals broadly affordable. Not long ago, Lange said, “If you go back to the mid-90s when the antiretroviral drugs first became available, the cost was about $15,000 a year for a patient. Now it is $100 a year.”

Today, there are more than five million adults on antiretrovirals in Africa, and almost 500,000 children. Community-based organizations such as those Firelight funds play an important role in getting HIV positive adults and children on treatment, through community outreach and referral to health services. There is more to do, but the momentum is positive.

Today, the world has the opportunity to end mother-to-child transmission of HIV. It’s affordable, simple, and logistically feasible, and the global health community has mobilized around this goal.

When Firelight was founded in 1999, our best hope was to mitigate the suffering that was being caused by AIDS, to help those who were helping orphans. Treatment was not on the horizon in Africa, nor was the prevention of childhood AIDS. Today the picture is much more hopeful, thanks to committed activists, researchers and leaders like Professor Lange.

At Firelight we gratefully acknowledge the work of Joep Lange and all the AIDS researchers and activists who died in the MH17 crash, and we commit to taking their work forward in the same hopeful, determined, and solution-oriented spirit that we knew in them.