interview: Dr. Suniti Solomon
Founding Director, YRG CARE Center / India
Dr. Suniti Solomon and her dedicated team of researchers, doctors, and counselors have been helping people living with HIV since 1993.
YRG CARE is a premier non-profit HIV referral center in Southern India, whose goal is that, people living with HIV and AIDS, and their families, live with dignity; and that there is no further transmission of the infection.
In 1993, I founded YRG CARE to prevent the spread of HIV and treat and support those who are HIV positive: men, women, and children - and their families.
I was initially working as a Professor of Microbiology at Government of Tamil Nadu’s Madras Medical College, the oldest medical school in India. In 1986, my team detected the first HIV positive person in India and since established the first Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) center in India. Those days I saw one new patient with HIV and today we see on average 10 new patients a day. While counseling young adults, I realized the extent of risks, myths, misconceptions, and ignorance about sexuality and HIV among them. So I decided to go out to schools and other youth centers and educate young adults about sexuality. Though in the beginning it was very difficult to enter the portals of educational institutions, with the help of Catholic priests (my friends) I managed it; today it is a sustainable program in my state, Tamilnadu. Since I found that the best way to prevent the spread of HIV was behavior change, I gave up my prestigious position with the government and started my NGO, YRG CARE.
As a Professor of Microbiology in a medical school, our work is divided between the students and the laboratory. I really enjoyed teaching and interacting with patients. But as an NGO we are out in the community and have built a wonderful rapport with them. Unless we mobilize the community it is difficult to achieve our goals, in this case HIV prevention, VCT and referral for care, follow up etc. Government make policies but we need NGOs to implement them especially when we need to work with marginalized communities such as female sex workers, men who have sex with men, injection drug users etc. So an NGO complements the government.
It is about $3m per annum but most of the funds are designated for specific prevention, care and support, or research projects. We are presently collocated in another hospital and are planning to build our own at a cost about $2m. Our dream is to support every poor patient who knocks at our door.
Though we have comparably lower turnover of staff than most others, it hurts when we let go of staff we train when they are approached by international NGOs and the private sector with “tantalizing” offers we can never match with our modest means.
As an NGO, the level of scrutiny for project and study approvals is far greater than for the private sector or of institutions within the Government.
Government of India normally gives major research projects to their own institutions and it is frustrating when they consider NGOs incapable of such projects. On the other hand, we are a referral lab for South East Asia for Research projects funded by NIH, USA.
At present we are able to give free treatment (medicines and lab tests) only to a small number of our patients. My dream is that no patient should be sent out of our center because they cannot pay, though our charges are far less than any other center. But the poorest of the poor especially widows and children have absolutely no money for food and hence there is no question about them paying for medicines. Also I am dreaming of the day when we will build our own hospital and thereby bringing down the cost of care.
- Holistic service to more than 12000 patients with HIV and their families.
- Setting up a NABL lab which is QA/QC by CAP, UK NEQAS, JHU and now it is a Regional referral lab for South East Asia (YRG CARE lab in 1993 was in my kitchen)
- About 40 research projects, completed; ongoing to answer specific research question concerning issues in India.
- Capacity building for doctors, nurses, counselors, lab scientists and outreach workers, etc.
In my opinion, there are three types of people that I would consider important to know about YRG CARE.
Most important are the people living with HIV and their families… Second are the people that network or collaborate with YRGCARE and last but not the least are the rest of the community, the government and other private sector who could support our patients through us.
More people at risk or those living with HIV should be aware of available services: clinical, counseling, and psychosocial support. Many families bring in the patient at the last stage of the disease and little intervention is possible. I wish more people knew about our services and were able to reach us in time so that they can live a better life.
I wish that all our collaborators and networks understand the great deal of commitment and involvement of our staff. Their attitudes are so accepting, non-discriminating and non-stigmatizing and they definitely make our patients and clients feel welcome.
YRG CARE has been fortunate to have the media play a small but important role in increasing the visibility of its services through print, radio, and television media.
I recall the one incident a few years back, when the international media picked up our service for matrimonial services for people living with HIV; this was later taken over by the local media. There was an especially huge spread of our work in the local daily in Andhra Pradesh, a neighboring state to Tamilnadu. We got several people who were interested in this matrimonial service. This helped not only to match positive persons, but some of them were actually able to have a clinical check up, go to know their health status and initiate antiretroviral therapy. Many of the couples who got married have children and happy families today.
Of course, more visibility is always required especially for those recently at risk or recently diagnosed, and so we always need to work closely.
We invite people to help us in fundraising. We have a large number of patients and their families who really require support for medications, laboratory testing and monitoring, education, food, etc. Even though the government program provides free antiretroviral medications, these are often limited to first line medications and often patients are not willing to utilize the public services for several reasons, mainly long waiting time. Several of our patients now require second line drugs and are unable to afford it; some of them have run out of finances due to the huge medical bills over a long number of years.
Vulnerable women are also in need of sustainable employment opportunities, we have an entrepreneurship program for which we need a lot of help. We have two income generation programs for women – one provides them with retail skills in food sales using food carts (Kathir, a Community Kitchen Project) and the other program provides opportunities to make eco-friendly bags (Pi-bags).
We also invite people to start the de-stigmatizing process and help in treating HIV like any other disease and be accepting of people living with HIV within their families and communities.
More people can get tested voluntarily and get to know their status and reduce risks.
Your support has helped several patients; men, women and children in their clinical care management.
The grant really helped to fill the gap in the ability to offer free services to our patients. Many patients are on ART support for several years. The grant supported their CD4, viral load, and resistance testing. It also helped support costs for investigations and medications for opportunistic infections.
Definitely, the support has been timely and has helped hundreds of patients.
Many patients who received this support were able to quickly return to their work or school. Eg. There was a patient with cytomegalovirus who received medication support for 14 days of Gancyclovir (600USD), which helps prevent blindness. The man has been able to return to his job over a period of time and care for himself and his family.
Oh, I was overjoyed! I am always happy when someone finds our work worthwhile and supports it in a meaningful way. The greatest benefit was getting support for our patients and it is gratifying.
Mahatma Gandhi was my inspiration when growing up, also Florence Nightingale.
The one person/saint I admire most is Mother Teresa because of her selfless love and service to her fellow-men. She was an incarnation of God to me. I am yet to see a human being work the way she did.
I feel most sad about violence against and sexual abuse of women and children. Could they not lead a normal, happy, healthy life?
A selfless person is happy, content, and sleeps when his/her head hits the pillow!!
Stop corruption at all levels.
Depletion of natural resources and environmental pollution (and the population growth that seems to fuel it).
- 10 years from now – emerging new diseases
- 25 years from now – food security, disappearing forests/species and ecological imbalance
- 50 years from now - war over water
Help others in need, having a purpose!
- Charles Annenberg Weingarten
- Mark Marble
- Kaliko Amona
- Juliano Mer Khamis
- Ken Balcomb
- Sangeeta J.K.
- Craig Sholley
- Prabhavati Dwabha
- Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati
- Dr. Chinny Krishna
- Jo-Anne Dixon
- Wen Bo
- Mrs. Triveni Balkrishna Acharya
- Dr. Richard Taylor
- Tom Iselin
- Denise Herzing
- Emilia Casella
- Oren Yakobovich
- Dr. Suniti Solomon
- Blake McElheny
- Honoré Gatera
- Madeline Bernstein
- Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman
- Art Smith
- Chris Henrikson