The year was 1986. It was a hot, humid day in June when Dr Suniti Solomon first discovered that the deadly HIV/AIDS virus had made its way to India.
Then a young doctor, Suniti was testing 100 sex workers as a part of a research project at the Madras Medical College (MMC).
Little did she known that a small, humble Madras laboratory’s preliminary research would precipitate a medical challenge on a national scale.
“She was shocked,” her son, Dr Sunil Solomon, recalled, 30 years on. “She had told her research student that she didn’t expect to find anything, that she was expecting negative results across the board.”
Instead, what Dr Suniti found was that six of the 100 workers tested positive for HIV/AIDS, an enormous discovery that brought the reality of the virus home to India.
But not initially.
“The government refused to believe the tests,” Dr Sunil said. “They could not believe that a country like India – deemed to be cultural superior to the West – could have the virus.”
It was only after the samples were sent to Washington and confirmed as positive that the government accepted Dr Suniti’s tests.
Facing enormous opposition, the doctor would go on to establish the YR Gaitonde Care Foundation in 1993 in Chennai (then Madras), and shape how the country educated itself about the disease and treated those who had it.
“Her discovery helped India start its fight against HIV/AIDS,” said Dr Sekhar, a senior doctor responsible for anti-retroviral treatments that help subdue the disease, at the General Government Hospital in Chennai.
After Dr Suniti died last year, Sunil, a doctor in his own right, took over the foundation.
Grappling with the virus
An understanding of the virus, Dr Suniti deemed three decades ago, was critical in helping treat those who suffered from it.
Dr Suniti’s sheer dedication to her patients came, perhaps, from some of their tragic fates.
One of the first six people to be diagnosed was a 13-year-old girl who had been abducted and sold into the sex trade. The girl volunteered at the foundation the same year it started, dying a few months later.
But sympathy from the general public was in short supply.
“We were thrown into jail, beaten by police, and called things like impure,” said S Noori, president of the South Indian Positive network.
A former sex worker, Noori was among the first to be diagnosed with AIDS in India, and decided to volunteer to help raise awareness about HIV after meeting Dr Suniti in 1987.
“Today, people look at homosexuals and transgenders with the same contempt they had for us sex workers back then.”
“Men face an additional level of stigma because of the prejudice against homosexuality,” Dr Sunil agreed. “And it’s worrying because it affects their access to treatment.”
The main difference between then and now, according to Noori, is how open people with HIV are. “People are much more willing to come out and say I am positive,” she asid, “And that’s great because it shows that people’s attitudes towards it are changing.”
It has been exactly 30 years since the first HIV patient was diagnosed in India. In this time, the country has made significant strides in medical treatment, thanks in large part to Dr Suniti’s gargantuan efforts.
“What was a death sentence 30 years ago is now a manageable problem,” said Dr Sunil. “One pill a day and you’re good to go.”
The next big frontier that HIV/AIDS research needs to conquer is finding a cure.
But of equal importance is continuing the fight that Dr Suniti Solomon began – the struggle against the stigma that AIDS patients face.