Go well Dr Radium Bhattacharya

Go well Dr Radium Bhattacharya

Dr Radium Bhattacharya breathed her last in early morning wee hours of Sunday, 20 December 2009. She was one of the first veteran AIDS activists in India to take up the fight against AIDS in 1980s. Her contribution to HIV prevention options for women and enabling civil society working on AIDS-related issues to network and collaborate effectively to improve HIV response was a benchmark indeed. Read more

She was the founder-president of Indian Network of NGOs on HIV/AIDS (INN) - national network of non-governmental organizations working on HIV/AIDS issues in India that she had founded in 1994. Today INN is a network of more than 500 NGOs working on issues-related to HIV/AIDS across the country, with several state-level networks too. Dr Radium was leading the Gujarat AIDS Prevention unit (GAP) from her humble office in Ahmedabad.

My association with Dr Radium began in second half of the year 2000 when she convinced me repeatedly to document and raise awareness about women's specific needs for HIV prevention options - and above all, familiarised me with the word that was "Micro... what?" then to me - Microbicides. At the annual national convention of INN in February 2001, in Ahmedabad, Megan Gottemoeller from Global Campaign for Microbicides (GCM) along with Mitchell Warren from Female Health Foundation were there at this INN convention in Ahmedabad contributing enormously in raising awareness about and mobilizing INN partners to respond to HIV prevention needs of women. Microbicides and female condoms both were in spotlight at the 2001 INN national convention. Megan, during her presentation then, had asked the participants how many of them had ever-heard of microbicides, only three hands went up. As the years rolled by, majority of INN partners contributed in pushing the microbicides advocacy agenda in India. It was indeed Dr Radium's commitment to the cause that was instrumental in strategically mobilizing civil society to advocate for accelerating microbicides research and advocacy, with the government, researchers and other stakeholders, and also to lobby for improved representation of civil society as equal partners in microbicides development as research went ahead. Lori Heise, then-Director of Global Campaign for Microbicides (GCM) along with her dedicated team had built the competence of advocates from civil society in India on a range of ethical issues related to microbicides research, and Dr Radium surely took up the mantle to sensitize INN partners in states where microbicides research was taking place and push for regular interface between researchers and civil society to ensure ethical standards were being met as research advanced.

In 2002, during one of her visits to Delhi, she dropped in at the office of PATH India. Mr Vinay Kumar from PATH was very supportive and PATH's commitment to microbicides research further enhanced the advocacy for HIV prevention options for women. National Working group on Microbicides, National Workshops on HIV Prevention option for women, National Policy Workshop on Microbicides, National Stakeholder Meeting on Microbicides, were some of the most tangible outcomes in 2003 and years that followed, strengthening microbicides advocacy and engaging civil society meaningfully as the research progressed ahead in India. Not surprisingly, she was the co-chair of the Community and Advocacy (Track D) Committee of the International Microbicides Conference in New Delhi, India (2008).

Dr Radium along with INN partners, particularly those like Naz Foundation International (NFI) and Bharosa Trust that have contributed to addressing the HIV prevention needs, and improving the sexual health and human rights of marginalised males who have sex with males (MSM), their partners and families, took up the mantle of raising the neglected issue of rectal microbicides research in Indian perspective. There was no microbicide-candidate product being researched upon in India for rectal use - and MSM being recognized by the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) as one of the key high-risk population for HIV, it made sense for INN to work with partners to raise the understanding of HIV prevention needs among the community, and also explore if rectal microbicides were something Indian MSM communities might want to advocate for. With support from GCM, INN convened a national workshop with MSM networks and since then, the advocacy has only upped for rectal microbicides in India.
In one such state-level advocacy workshop on microbicides to sensitize INN partners on ethical issues in microbicides research and encourage them to get involved with microbicides research in their own state of Tamil Nadu, she began the first national dedicated electronic discussion group (eGroup) for information exchange and discussion on issues around Microbicides research, advocacy and community involvement in India, on 11 June 2005. In time, this eGroup connected more than 900 people. Now with Microbicides Society of India (MSI) taking leadership in India, of which Dr Radium was the board member, this eGroup is used currently by MSI.

HIV prevention option for women is just one area where Dr Radium’s defining contribution in terms of building up the civil society response as research progressed ahead, was a landmark. Back in her own state of Gujarat, her contribution to HIV/AIDS response in general was phenomenal. She was one of the veterans to step up the fight against AIDS in India in 1980s, undoubtedly, and recognize early-on the vital role of partnerships and of civil society representation in the AIDS response which led to formation of INN in 1994.

It is an enormous personal loss to me - as she meant no less than my mother. Similar expressions abound as condolences pour in. I have a confession to make too – as I feel very guilty of not keeping promises I made to Dr Radium. When I met her last in Ahmedabad, she was bravely recovering from her illness, and I, was one of those who had promised her to contribute in taking the INN responsibilities while she was recuperating. Despite of my best intentions, I could never keep the promise I made to her and hope for her forgiveness. The only redemption could be to complete the unfinished task, and contribute truly in improving the AIDS response.

Published in:
Elites TV News, USA
Citizen News Service (CNS), India/Thailand