In 1986, a project was going on in the laboratory of the Madras Medical College in Tamil Nadu. The results of the project were going to send the entire nation into a state of disbelief and shock.
The experiment involved testing a hundred people who had undergone multiple blood transfusions. Most of the people were sex workers from a nearby remand home, including a 13-year-old girl who was pushed into sex trade. Of the hundred samples, six samples turned out to be HIV positive. The six samples also included the 13-year-old girl’s blood.
Suniti Solomon, a professor at Madras Medical College, suggested a post-graduate student, Sellapan Nirmala, do her PhD on Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The world discovered the deadly virus in 1981 and even after 5 years, India was in total denial of the virus being spread in the country.
Solomon and Nirmala sent the samples to two other places, including Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA and the Christian Medical College in Vellore. They reconfirmed Solomon’s findings.
Solomon understood the nature of urgency and without waiting for the government to come up with strategies and solutions, she took measures to stop the virus from spreading by setting up India’s first voluntary counselling and testing centre for AIDS. This was later turned into an NGO — Y. R. Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education. The centre takes in patients who are rejected by other hospitals. Till date, the YRG centre has treated more than 20,000 HIV-positive patients. Since its inception, YRG centre has been dedicated to educating doctors and spreading awareness among them about HIV.
In a paper she wrote in 2006, Solomon said, “There is a lack of trained HIV physicians in India. Few hospitals and physicians provide healthcare for people living with HIV/AIDS, partly because of reluctance among healthcare personnel to deliver treatment to this population. Reasons for this reluctance include personal values and prejudices, an inaccurate perception of occupational risks entailed in healthcare, and the belief that HIV-negative patients will refuse to share healthcare facilities with people living with HIV.”
What bothered Solomon most was the stigma attached to the deadly disease. She had once said in an interview with TOI, “What is killing people with AIDS more is the stigma and discrimination”.
She set up her office in her house so as to make it easier for people to be able to approach her without being judged by onlookers and society as a whole. She came to be known as the “AIDS doctor of Chennai”. Suniti Soloman passed away on the July 28th, last year.
There are 86,000 new infections every year, 68,000 AIDS-related deaths and 2.1 million people living with HIV in India. Has India gotten over the stigma yet?