Doctor who found first AIDS case in India still going strong

Twenty three years later, Dr Suniti Solomon, is now concentrating her efforts to bring about an attitude change in society to accept people living with HIV and AIDS.

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In 1986, when the world had woken up to the dreaded infectious disease of AIDS, a government medical college professor in south India guided her student to detect the first case of the virus in India.

Twenty three years later the doctor is now concentrating her efforts to bring about an attitude change in society to accept people living with HIV and AIDS on par with those with other chronic diseases.

"As a professor I asked one of my postgraduate students to do her PhD on the subject since there were no known cases in India," says Dr Suniti Solomon who taught microbiology at the Madras Medical College.

Though the student initially voiced her doubts about finding such HIV affected people in a country where AIDS was still unknown, together the doctor-student duo helped by others were able to identify in 1986, the initial cases of AIDS virus among female sex workers in Tamil Nadu.

"We chose from people who had undergone multiple blood transfusions,  went to remand homes where they had rounded up some sex workers and altogether tested a total of 100 people. Six sex workers turned up positive," says the doctor.

One of the youngest, a 13-year-old, had after staying in various remand houses finally found employment at the YRG centre set up by Dr Solomon in Chennai but died three years ago.

"I do not know the fate of the remaining five... I have been unable to trace them," says Solomon. Solomon was also among the first in the country to set up a care centre for the AIDS affected.

The Chennai-based centre, YR Gaitonde Center for AIDS Research and Education (YRG CARE), accepts patients who are rejected by other hospitals. "We do not throw them out because of their HIV positive status," says the 69-year-old doctor.

"When  we detected the first cases even doctors and health professionals  were divided in their opinion. They did not want us to proceed. Even today the same attitude exists among hospitals and doctors who are reluctant to treat positive people," says the doctor who says she now sees eight to ten new patients daily.

"I used to see only one patient in a day when we had started the centre in 1993," she says. In India, there are about 2.5 million HIV positive individuals of whom 1.7 lakh are in the state of Tamil Nadu according to UNAIDS.

In the state which has a total population of about 70 million people, the total HIV prevalence in 2007 stands at 0.34% compared with Maharashtra (0.62%), Karnataka (0.69%), Andhra Pradesh (0.97%)  and Manipur (1.13%) according to the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco).

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