HIV pioneer Dr Suniti Solomon passes away

New Delhi,July 29: Dr Suniti Solomon, whose team was the first to document evidence of HIV infection in India in 1986, died at her residence in Chennai on Tuesday morning. 

A pioneer in treating HIV patients since the 80s at a time when many physicians were reluctant, she founded the first voluntary HIV testing and counselling centre, YR Gaitonde Center for AIDS Research and Education, a premier HIV/AIDS care and support centre, in Chennai. She was also the Professor of Microbiology at the Madras Medical College.

At a time when the international journals had been writing a lot about the HIV outbreaks in the world in 1980s, it was the six blood samples she collected from female sex-workers sheltered at a government home in Mylapore that sent first shockwaves of the deadly virus in India. 

Samples initially tested positive were sent to Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore as the facility for ELISA test was only available there in mid-80s. Later, samples were sent to the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, United States for further confirmation. The first findings of the deadly virus, in Tamil Nadu, was even read out in the state legislative assembly.

She set up the first voluntary testing and counselling centre and an AIDS Research Group in Chennai while serving at the Madras Medical College and Government General Hospital as a Professor of Microbiology. 

She was also a member of the National Technical Team on women and AIDS and a member of the advisory board of International AIDS Vaccine Initiative-India, member of the Scientific Committee of the National AIDS Research Institute, Pune, Government of India, a permanent member on the Microbicides Committee of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and member of the Asia Data Safety Monitoring Board of the Division of AIDS, NIH, US.

A pioneer in public health and HIV related studies, she was part of several pioneering HIV research studies including the US National Institute of Mental Health's multi-country HIV/STD Prevention Trial, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' HIV Prevention Trial Networks, NIH award that will measure stigma in health care settings in Southern India, and a Phase III study of six per cent CS GEL, a candidate microbicide of CONRAD. She also served as the President of the AIDS Society of India.

Among her colleagues and specialists, she is always remembered as a doctor who dared to deal with HIV at a time when many physicians were reluctant to enter that field. She used to recall an unforgettable case in which she treated a pregnant woman tested positive in 1992, who delivered a baby who also tested positive, although he later died at the age of 17.