Remembering the Women who Discovered India’s First HIV Cases: Sellappan Nirmala and Suniti Solomon

Despite currently having the third largest HIV epidemic in the world, India was once thought to be immune to HIV and AIDs that belonged in the “debauched West where free sex and homosexuality were prevalent.” At the time Indians were portrayed as “heterosexual, monogamous, and God-fearing” by the press; therefore, HIV’s popping up in the country was seen as impossible.

However, in 1985, Sellappan Nirmala was searching for a dissertation topic when her professor and mentor, Suniti Solomon suggested she screen people for HIV/AIDs. At first, she doubted the proposal. Hundreds of tests had been administered in more populous cities such as Mumbai with no positive results. Not only was the press implying that Indian people were too conservative for HIVs to be prevalent, Nirmala was located in Chennai in the Tamil Nadu region, which was considered especially traditional. Furthermore, the city of Chennai had no known red-light district, so finding subjects would be exceptionally difficult.

To her avail, Solomon persuaded Nirmala to move forward with the research. Her goal? Collect two hundred blood samples from high-risk subjects, like sex workers. To start, she frequented the hospital to connect with women who were being treated for sexually transmitted diseases. After befriending a few sex workers, she discovered that many of them were living in the “vigilance home”, where prostitutes and other criminals were remanded by officials, which made it easier for her to find more subjects.

Now that she had her subjects, she was able to collect her samples. With the help of Solomon, the two of them created a makeshift lab to separate the serum from the blood samples. Next was testing these samples; however, the closest testing facility was two hundred kilometres away in Vellore. So, Nirmala and her husband boarded an overnight train to bring the samples to Christian Medical College where the lab was located.

It was at this lab where she made her groundbreaking discovery. Six of the eighty sample tested positive. For due diligence, they even collected samples from the six positive subjects again and retested it in the US which confirmed that the HIV virus had indeed landed in India. From there, the rest is history. The news was shared with the Indian Council for Medical Research, the Prime Minister, and the State Health Minister who all responded in panic. Regardless of the numerous screenings and prevention programmes, HIV and AIDs turned into an epidemic in the country over the following years. In spite of her unprecedented discovery, Nirmala is mostly forgotten. She’s had little recognition for her research, but is simply happy to “have done something for the society.” #SomethingGood

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