IPPF Director General Alvaro Bermejo, former Executive Director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, reflects on the life of the pioneering, inspiring doctor, HIV activist and devoted Trustee of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, whose passion and work shaped what is now Frontline AIDS
The most extraordinary Jens van Roey will no longer be seen cycling through life. His legacy will continue and expand in so many of us who got to experience his determination to live and to make a contribution.
A medical doctor, devoted to his work in Africa, it was a phone call from his own Belgian doctor in autumn of 1988 that changed his life: he was HIV+. Not a death sentence but a call to live fully. Jens dedicated his life to breaking the silence, informing communities and researching a treatment through Tibotec -a start-up pharma that he had helped to create.
I first met him in 2003 when I was interviewing for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance job and from that day on I was proud to have found a mentor and friend. Jens walked a powerful line as an activist researcher and a person living with HIV. With UNAIDS he led the process that agreed the GIPA Principles – the Greater Involvement of people with AIDS. He was always the most community oriented member of the Board… and then he would remind you that he was actually the private sector guy working for pharma. He had been part of building it from the start and never missed a meeting; he never let the incredibly aggressive treatments that were being tested on his own body stop him from travelling and contributing. His passion, his caring, was much stronger than any of that.
He got to celebrate his 60th birthday and decided to retire while staying actively engaged with two of his babies: the Alliance and the International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM). By then IPM was working on the dapivirine ring – the female-controlled product that he had devoted his work to developing. His other great passion was cycling the world with his wife Bieke. Together they raised money for small HIV organisations and for the projects they continued supporting in Congo.
A decade – and a few cancers - later, he celebrated his 70th birthday. Sadly it would be his last. I had the privilege of catching up with him a few weeks later. He showed me the beautiful city of Mechelen, in Belgium, and passionately explained how good, progressive leadership can have a real impact on people’s lives, and we talked about his son and daughter, and how proud he was of their work and of his grand children but more than anything, we talked about the potential of a female controlled technology, one that can prevent HIV infection and unwanted pregnancies reaching the market
He was not ready to go. But that is because he never will leave us. Our hearts and minds are with his wife Bieke, son, daughter, his grandchildren and all who loved him and were inspired by him.
Banner image of Dr. van Roey in the Democratic Republic of the Congo originally appears in this piece by Johnson & Johnson.