Malaysian Flight's Toll: A Voice for Simpler AIDS Treatment

People gather next to a sign reading AIDS 2014 in Melbourne on July 18 after news that downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was carrying many participants headed to the 20th International AIDS Conference planned this weekend in the Australian city Photograph by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Many of the people who died in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 were on their way to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, where they could have celebrated this bit of good news: For the first time last year more people worldwide were put on antiretroviral drugs that treat HIV than were newly infected from the disease. Some 2.3 million people were put on the life-saving treatments, compared to 2.1 million new infections.

Many on that flight had played a role in that progress, including Dr. Joep Lange, a Dutch professor who had spent decades in research and advocacy around getting more people in the developing world on antiretroviral medication.

HIV/AIDS kills 1.6 million people each year—equivalent to one planeload of people every two hours. The vast majority of those deaths are in the developing world, mostly in Africa.  Lange often argued that if we could get a can of Coke to any part of Africa, we should be able to deliver AIDS treatment, too. But 15 years ago there were two key differences between Coke and antiretrovirals: Coke is easy to consume and cheap.  ARVs were expensive and complicated to take.

Lange’s research demonstrated the importance of simple drug regimens: if people only have to take a few pills with smaller side effects, they are far more likely to take them and stay healthy. He also founded a research collaboration based in Thailand that carried out studies on sexually transmitted disease—including an ongoing study of using HIV treatment as a tool to prevent the spread of the virus.

And, in fact, simpler, cheaper generic regimens have brought the cost of buying and distributing drugs to a dollar a day or less—getting closer to the cost of a Coke.  Dr Lange’s contribution to that progress, alongside that of the other victims of Flight MH17, is an unforgettable legacy.

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