Groundbreaking HIV researcher Dr Suniti Solomon, the first to bring to the world the prevalence of the infection in India in 1986 and one who successfully led research into the treatment of the deadly virus, passed away at her residence in Chennai on Tuesday.
She was 76 and had been under treatment for two months for liver cancer, family sources said. "Her death was sudden; she passed away this (Tuesday) morning. She was getting treatment for liver cancer for the past two months," Ganesh and Krishnan of Y R Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education (YRG Care) told PTI.
Dr Suniti Solomon was founder-director of the centre, a premier HIV/AIDS care and support centre in Chennai. She is survived by her son Dr Sunil Solomon. Her husband Dr Solomon Victor predeceased her in 2006.
Dr Suniti Solomon and her colleagues documented the first evidence of the HIV infection in India in 1986 when blood samples of six commercial sex workers staying in a government home in Chennai tested positive.
The samples were first sent to Christian Medical College in Vellore and later to a facility in the United States, where they tested HIV positive. It quickly led to a series of research and training for medical and paramedical professionals on HIV infection, besides gradually putting in place a treatment regimen for those affected. Her pioneering HIV research studies include the US National Institute of Mental Health's multi-country HIV/STD Prevention Trial.
"When she served Madras Medical College and Government General Hospital as a professor of microbiology, she set up the first voluntary testing and counselling centre and an AIDS Research Group in Chennai," Ganesh said.
An MD in microbiology from Madras University, she was a household name in Tamil Nadu in the area of HIV prevention and care and among people living with HIV/AIDS.
Trained in pathology in the United Kingdom and US, her experience covers a wide range of aspects linked to HIV infection, biomedical parameters to socio-economics.
In the last three decades, there was hardly any event or academic programme on HIV in the state in which she had not participated. She has published papers extensively on HIV epidemiology, prevention, care, support and related gender issues.
In 2012, Dr Suniti Solomon was given the Lifetime Achievement Award for Service on HIV/AIDS by the state-run Dr MGR Medical University in Chennai. In 2009, the ministry of science and technology conferred the 'National Women Bio-scientist Award' on her.
In 2001, she was given a similar award for her pioneering work on HIV/AIDS by the state run medical varsity. She was awarded on several other occasions too by Tamil Nadu, like in 2005 for her work on HIV.
The Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society had also given her a Lifetime Achievement Award. She was awarded a DMS (Honoris Cusa) by the Brown University in USA in 2006. She has bagged several other awards like the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for education and humanitarian services.
A fellow of National Academy of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, she had served on several boards, including the national technical team on women and AIDS, Advisory Board of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative-India, the Scientific Committee of the National AIDS Research Institute Pune and the Microbicide Committee of Indian Council of Medical Research.
Image: Dr Suniti Solomon underwent treatment for liver cancer. Photograph: explore.org