Suniti Solomon: India’s Preeminent HIV Researcher & Activist

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In the early 1980s, the world was just becoming aware of HIV and its devastating impacts. If untreated, the virus can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), in which the body’s immune system is unable to fight infections or disease. At the time, HIV was wreaking havoc in the U.S. and other world regions; however, the general view in India was that HIV was strictly relegated to Western countries. Solomon, who was reading about HIV in international medical journals, wasn’t convinced. 

She persuaded her student, Selleppan Nirmala, to help answer a single question: is HIV in India? They focused their sampling efforts on members of the sex worker community, who they perceived had a high risk for infection. In 1986, Nirmala and Solomon collected blood from 100 people in Chennai and tested the serum for the presence of HIV—6 samples tested positive, results that were confirmed via independent analysis at Johns Hopkins University.