Unsung hero

The story of how one woman first detected HIV in India

(NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

After formal tracking of AIDS cases began in the U.S. in 1982, Indian officials knew that early detection of the disease’s arrival to their shores was paramount to limiting the its spread. But at a time when Indian media described HIV as a disease of the “debauched West” where “free sex and homosexuality” were rampant, to imply that Indians could be affected by HIV was almost taboo. This was especially the case in Chennai and the surround Tamil Nadu region, where society was considered especially traditional. But it was there in Chennai that one little-known scientist, then 32-year-old microbiology student Sellappan Nirmala, discovered the very first cases of HIV in India.

Nirmala, who claims she knew nothing about HIV or AIDS at the time, said that her professor and mentor, Suniti Solomon, had suggested that she test blood samples for HIV for for her dissertation. After overcoming some initial reservations, Nirmala agreed and they decided that Nirmala would collect samples from high-risk groups such as sex workers, gay men, and African students for testing.

Chennai had no fixed location for sex workers, so Nirmala began frequenting the Madras General Hospital in search of women being treated for sexually transmitted diseases. “I befriended a couple of sex workers and they would point out other sex workers to me,” Nirmala recalled. “When I looked at their forms, I saw that many had ‘V home’ written on them.” Prostitutes and destitute women, she discovered, were being housed in a “vigilance home” after being arrested and being unable to pay bail. She began visiting the “vigilance home” every morning before work, gathering more than 80 samples from the workers living there over the course of three months.

Solomon, who was married to a heart-and-lung surgeon, assembled a small makeshift lab with equipment borrowed from her husband so that they could prepare the samples for testing. Nirmala, meanwhile, stored the samples in her home refrigerator. In February of 1986, with no facilities for testing nearby, they sent the samples to Christian Medical College in Vellore — more than 124 miles away. Six of the samples from the sex workers returned positive — Nirmala and her husband were sworn to secrecy.

In May, then Tamil Nadu state health minister announced that HIV had appeared in India. Despite disbelief and intense scrutiny from critics, authorities soon launched massive screening and prevention programs. HIV swiftly turned into an epidemic in India — at one point it was believed that India had the largest number of infected people in the world with 5.2 million infections. Even today, more than 2.1 million people remain afflicted with HIV in India. If it hadn’t been for Nirmala and Solomon, however, there’s no telling how much worse it could have been.

When asked whether the lack of recognition for her achievement bothered her, Nirmala said she never really expected to receive attention for her work. “I was brought up in a village. There no-one gets excited or depressed about such things,” she explained. “I’m happy I got this opportunity and I’ve done something for the society.”

Read the full story at the BBC.

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