Remembering Jens van Roey

Alvaro Bermejo, former Executive Director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (now Frontline AIDS), reflects on the life of the pioneering, inspiring doctor, HIV activist and devoted Trustee, whose passion and work shaped our organisation

The most extraordinary Jens van Roey  (27 March 1953 – 5 September 2023) 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 the 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. 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 Alliance Board… and then he would remind you that he was actually the private sector guy working for pharma. He had been part of building the Alliance from the start, served for nine years, stood down and was then re-elected by his peers. He 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 HIV prevention product that he had devoted his work to develop, and that is now reaching women around the world.  Jens had another great passion: 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 he explained with passion how good, progressive leadership can have a real impact on people’s lives. We talked about his son and daughter, and how proud he was of their work and of his grandchildren; but more than anything, we talked about the potential of a female controlled technology reaching the market; one that can prevent HIV infection and unwanted pregnancies.

He was not ready to go. But that is because he never will leave us. Our hearts and minds are with Bieke, his son, daughter, his grandchildren and all who loved him and were inspired by him.