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Updated: March 26, 2014 15:15 IST

Women Power: First to detect HIV in India

Petlee Peter
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Sunithi Soloman. Photo: M. Karunakaran
The Hindu Sunithi Soloman. Photo: M. Karunakaran

From treating HIV patients to supporting people living with the virus, Dr. Suniti Solomon has come a long way.

She holds the honour of documenting the first evidence of HIV infection in the country way back in 1986. The city's first voluntary HIV testing and counselling centre was her institutive. Recipient of various awards for her meritorious service in the field of HIV/AIDS, she successfully runs an NGO and supports people living with the virus.

Dr. Suniti Solomon, founder-director of Y R Gaitonde Center for AIDS Research and Education (YRG CARE) in Chennai, has come a long way. Her milestone moment came in May 1986 when she was working as a Professor of Microbiology at the prestigious Madras Medical College.

“Those were the days when I was reading a lot of foreign journals on the HIV and its effect in the U.S. In a quest to determine whether the virus was spreading here, my postgraduate student Nirmala and I identified a few female sex-workers lodged at the government home on Kutchery Road in Mylapore,” says Dr. Suniti.

Six blood samples that were initially tested positive were sent to Christian Medical College in Vellore for an ELISA test (as the facility was then available only in CMC) for reconfirmation. The samples were later sent to the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, United States for further confirmation.

Sending shockwaves throughout the country in the May of 1986, Dr. Suniti came out with the results on the sexually transmitted virus. The findings were even read out in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly.

There was no looking back for the doctor who once aspired to become a neurologist. As the second step towards her new area of research, Dr. Suniti helped set-up the Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre for HIV at the Institute of Microbiology in MMC.

At a time when physicians feared to deal with HIV, Dr. Suniti decided to make an alternative career in it. “I took an early retirement and started my organisation in November 1993 with just three people. We did a lot of tough ground work. We had to erect huts in the Pondy Bazaar area and treat patients as no hospital came forward to admit HIV positive persons,” recollects the doctor on the days of hardship.

YRG Care with over 300 staff and having handled 14,428 patients (till 2009) is today one of the pioneers in offering care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Suniti's unforgettable moment at work came in 1992 when she treated a pregnant woman tested positive. “She delivered a beautiful baby boy who was also tested positive. He led a healthy life with the support of medications until January last. He passed away at the age of 17,” she adds.

Today, according to Dr. Suniti, HIV positive patients have a big ray of hope thanks to the advancement in medical facilities and easy availability of antiretroviral drugs. “Earlier, I use to cry with my patients. Today, if any patient cries, I will whack that person,” she says with a laughter informing that people with HIV today can lead a healthy life like any other person. According to Dr. Suniti, it is the stigma which kills people and not the disease.

Being a successful woman in her field, Dr. Suniti has no plans of retirement. On her dream project she says, “I want to work for the welfare of little girls and boys who are victims of sexual abuse.”

Away from work Dr. Suniti Solomon is a Sudoku enthusiast and she loves spending time with her two Golden Retrievers back home.

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