HIV “Patient Zero” myth finally busted by science

It took 30 years to clear Gaëtan Dugas, the man the media originally blamed for HIV, dubiously dubbing him “Patient Zero”.


Three decades after Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas was vilified for introducing HIV to North America, a new study has found he was one of “thousands” of people already suffering from the virus in the late 1970s.

“Patient Zero,” as he became known, was labelled “Patient O”, as in, “Out(side)-of-California,” by the US Center for Disease Control. The corruption has been blamed on a combination of both typos and the spread of misinformation.

Researchers at the scientific journal Nature looked at serum in Dugas’ blood to determine whether the long-running legend of an individual beginning the AIDS pandemic was true, finding that the virus originally came to America by way of New York City, via the Caribbean, in the early 1970s.


The spread of HIV in the United States over the 1970’s. Source: LA Times

The spread of HIV in the United States in the 1970s. Source: LA Times


Dugas was first named as the originator of the HIV spread in the US states following his death in 1984, in the 1987 best-selling book And the Band Played On, and thereafter faced posthumous vilification in the media.

The New York Post shamed Dugas as “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS” in a front page headline, while Time joined in with an article on The Appalling Saga of Patient Zero.

Study co-author Dr Richard McKay described Dugas as “one of the most demonised patients in history, and one of a long line of individuals and groups vilified in the belief that they somehow fuelled epidemics with malicious intent.”

Claims of a promiscuous lifestyle, with Dugas having over 40 sexual partners across the North American continent, causing his untimely death, were rampant.

Instead, the study found that Dugas actually played a significant role in the tracking and finding of HIV in the US, having donated plasma for analysis, and through the naming of 72 sexual partners.

“It is important to remember that, in the 1970s, as now, the epidemic was driven by individuals going about their lives unaware they were contracting, and sometimes transmitting, a deadly infection,” McKay said.

While the researchers admit that they don’t believe the term “Patient Zero” will ever disappear, they hope that people will pause and reflect on the weight, and the history, that the term carries.

It is believed that the virus originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, finding its way into America through Haiti. An exact cause is not yet known.




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