CHENNAI: Dr Suniti Solomon, the doctor who detected the first instance of HIV infection in India and also gave the frightened nation the right vocabulary to describe the condition without stigma, passed away in Chennai on Tuesday morning. She was 75 and is survived by a son.
It was she and her team at the Madras Medical College that documented the first known case of HIV infection in the country way back in 1986 when testing the blood samples of six commercial sex workers staying in a government home in Chennai.
This was soon confirmed by the CMC, Vellore, where the facility to conduct ELISA test was available, and a facility in the US, triggering a series activities including research on the subject, training for medical and paramedical professionals on HIV infection, besides gradually putting in place a treatment regimen for those living with AIDS. There are now over two million people living with AIDS in the country, taking it to the third position in the world, signifying the importance of the discovery. Later, as fear of AIDS gripped the masses, Dr Suniti was a leading campaigner on spreading awareness.
She held workshops to train peer educators and other volunteers, and worked constantly with the media to ensure that the stigma is blunted and eventually removed. It is a condition, not a disease, she stressed repeatedly, as many times it took for the language to change. From MMC, she was transferred to the Institute of Child Health and Hospital, Egmore, where she served till 1993. That year, she took voluntary retirement from service to set up Y R Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education, a premier HIV/AIDS care and support centre in Chennai. She also set up the first voluntary testing and counselling centre and an AIDS research group in Chennai. Recalling his time as an MD student in the early 80s, Dr P Gunasekaran, director of King Institute of Preventive Medicine noted that Dr Suniti, then an associate professor at MMC, was intensely focussed on virology. “I still remember her way of teaching, where she used to explain the lessons very clearly to the students and was friendly and approachable,” he recalled. In addition to her AIDS campaign, Dr Suniti, along with her husband, eminent cardiologist Dr Victor Solomon, also played a pioneering role in spreading awareness and conducting outreach programmes about rheumatic fever and heart disease.