The Knight That Time Forgot: Meet Sellappan Nirmala, The Woman Who First Discovered AIDS In India

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Have you ever heard of Sellappan Nirmala? We bet you haven’t. This is precisely because of our age-old convenient practice of forgetting the heroes who matter. These days she is living a quiet and humble life in her village in Tamil Nadu but back in 1985, she was pursuing her dissertation as a microbiologist and was fervently searching for a topic when her professor and mentor, Suniti Solomon suggested her to explore the possibility of HIV infection in India.

Nirmala was naturally hesitant. There had been no known cases of HIV in India then. The disease itself carried the tag of a “debauchery of the west” and people had no knowledge of it.

However, she soon got to work and started visiting women remand homes where most of the sexual workers in Chennai were locked up by the Police when caught.

To her dismay, within just the first three months, she identified the first six cases of HIV, all from the same remand home. The samples were even taken to the USA for confirmation and they all returned the same result. The deadly virus had arrived in India!

The grim news was conveyed to the Indian Council for Medical Research, which informed the then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and then-Tamil Nadu state health minister HV Hande.

When Hande announced the same in the State Assembly, it sent a collective chill down the spine of the nation. The initial reaction of the people was disbelief. Some questioned the tests, some said the doctors had made a mistake. But the authorities launched massive screening and prevention programmes. Over the years, HIV-Aids turned into an epidemic in India, growing rapidly, pervading every corner of the country.

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Source: BBC

Even today, more than 2.1 million infected people live in India and the deadly disease, which still has no cure, remains a killer.

Exactly 30 years after her ground-breaking work confirmed the presence of HIV-Aids in India, Nirmala is all but forgotten. Except for the few press reports at the time about her triumph, there's been little recognition of her sterling work. To her credit, it doesn’t matter.

Title Image: BBC

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