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  March 3, 2003

Speaker: Denial A Barrier
To Curbing HIV In India
By Sherry Fisher

In 1985, Dr. Suniti Solomon suggested a project to one of her post-graduate students at Madras Medical College in India: Why don't we look for HIV? The student said, "Oh no, we don't have such people in India."

Solomon decided that they should proceed with the project anyway: "I said, 'Let's say we don't have such people, we don't have the infection. That will be a good result.'"

As it turned out, the AIDS virus was found in India, where today an estimated four million to five million people are HIV-positive.

Solomon made her remarks Feb. 20 in the Bousfield Psychology Building during a presentation on "YRGCARE: Shaping the Response to HIV/AIDS in India." It was the fourth lecture in the University's CHIP/ISI International Colloquium Series on HIV Intervention and Prevention and Medical Adherence to Antiretroviral Therapies.

Solomon said the project started with collecting samples from brothels.

"The girls used to be rounded up by the police," Solomon said. "We used to go and take blood. We didn't ask informed consent. We said just 'show your hand' and we drew the blood. We were in the government and could do whatever we wanted."

The team continued taking blood samples - from prisoners and patients in hospitals. Of the first 90 samples tested, six came up positive.

"Nobody believed it," Solomon said.

The government said the team had made a mistake, so the tests were repeated. The same six came out positive. That was in 1986.

In 1993, Solomon started YRG Center for AIDS Research and Education, a non-profit institution, in Chennai, southeast India. The Center offers a wide range of services, including HIV and sex education for adolescents and young adults, voluntary counseling and testing services, an HIV clinic, and inpatient services for people living with HIV. It also provides health care for more than 4,500 people with HIV, as well as voluntary counseling and testing services to nearly 14,000 people. Solomon and her team are also involved in many research projects.

"Anyone who comes into the clinic is helped," Solomon said. "We take them in and we do whatever we can. If they don't have money, we beg, borrow, and steal and get something for them."

In India, 82 percent of HIV infection is passed through heterosexual transmission, she said. A large percentage of women who are infected have just one partner - their husbands. Ninety percent of those infected with HIV are between the ages of 15 and 45.

Solomon said the perception that the risk of infection is low is one of the challenges in fighting HIV in India, where by 2010 it is believed that 25 million people will be infected.

"Nobody ever thinks they have it," she said. "They think because they have only one partner that they can't get it."

In the 10 years since she founded the Center, the number of patients with HIV has steadily increased. "Every six months, the numbers go up," Solomon said. "In 1993-94, I used to see one patient a week. Today, we see five to six new patients every day."

Solomon graduated from Madras Medical College in 1965 with medals in surgery, medicine, and pathology. She has worked as a pathologist in the United Kingdom and the United States, and taught at the Institute of Microbiology at the Madras Medical College before founding YRGCARE.

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