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Home >Politics >Policy >Suniti Solomon, a pioneer of HIV treatment in India, dies at 75

Chennai: In 1986, Dr Suniti Solomon was a professor of microbiology at the Madras Medical College when she first discovered that the six blood samples collected by one of her PhD students from female sex workers who were currently staying at the government remand home on Kutchery Road in the Mylapore area of the city contained the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

Back then, only a few places did ELISA (enzyme-linked immuno assay) testing and the samples were first sent to Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore and then to the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, US, for confirmation.

“When she realized that the samples from her laboratory contained the HIV virus she was galvanized into action," said media and health consultant, writer and medical doctor at Internews Network Jaya Sreedhar, who has worked closely with Dr Solomon. “She and Dr Jacob John of CMC Vellore then went to Delhi to talk about their findings," she added.

This reporter remembers speaking to her about HIV and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), the condition that HIV causes, three years ago and recalls how moved Dr Solomon was by the stories of those six women, especially that of a 13-year-old. She revealed how the girl was kidnapped and forced into the sex trade and how she managed to escape and reach the remand home.

This was a turning point of sorts in Solomon’s life. Since then, her life revolved around people infected with HIV. She went on to set up the first voluntary counselling and testing centre for HIV at the Madras Medical College.

In 1993, she set up the Y.R. Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education (YRG CARE), despite resistance from friends and family. Back then HIV awareness was low. In fact, when the virus first surfaced in the early 1980s, mostly among gay men who frequented the bath houses of New York, it was assumed to be a solely gay disease and was called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency).

Later, as cases were discovered among women as well, its nomenclature changed—it was renamed AIDS. But the stigma of the disease never went away. And this is exactly what Solomon sought to fight.

“This was the early 1990s, when you couldn’t really talk about things like safe sex and condoms in public meetings to a mixed audience. But she did. She really was ahead of her time," Dr Sreedhar said.

One of eight children, Solomon was born into the Chennai-based Gaitonde family. Though her family was involved in the leather trade, she developed an early interest in medicine, triggered by the health officer’s annual visit to the Gaitonde home where all the children were lined up for their shots, according to a August 2009 report in Mint.

She went on to study medicine at the Madras Medical College (this is where she met her husband—the late Dr Solomon Victor, an eminent cardiologist). With a background in pathology, she went on to do her doctorate in microbiology and was a professor at the Madras Medical College for several years, before she plunged full-time into HIV/AIDS education, treatment, counselling and control.

She passed away early on Tuesday at her residence, according to her family. She was 75 and suffering from cancer. Her death marks the end of a nearly 30-year crusade against the HIV pandemic.

Solomon was a pioneer in more ways than one. She was also the known as the HIV matchmaker as she helped arrange marriages for people afflicted with the disease. In fact, a movie titled Match +: A Story About Love in the Time of HIV was made on the subject a few years ago.

“Dr Solomon was an affectionate teacher and an inspiring colleague. She gave generously of her time and experience. Her work helped shape Tamil Nadu’s response to HIV prevention and care, particularly through the early years of the epidemic," Dr Shreedhar said.

She was also a big proponent of animal-assisted therapy. She would always be accompanied by her golden retriever, Nala, and would encourage her patients to interact with it. The loneliness and isolation that HIV-positive patients faced was far more destructive than the virus, she once told this reporter, and unlike human beings, animals do not discriminate or pass judgment.

She is survived by her son Sunil Suhas Solomon.

“I have a lot of admiration for the work she has done. I knew the forces she was fighting to keep the place (YRG CARE) alive. She never saw AIDS as a taboo and made it okay to talk about HIV/AIDS. Her organization didn’t just treat people, it also trained them to be HIV/AIDS counsellors," said Pavithra Venkatagopalan, director, Care Health Diagnostic Lab, Chennai.

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