Gaétan Dugas | Anonymous/Associated Press | 16489gh
The alleged “Patient Zero” of the American AIDS epidemic was a French Canadian flight attendant named Gaétan Dugas, who died of AIDS in 1984. Mr Dugas was exonerated last week. Far from being the instigator of an epidemic, he was merely one of thousands of its victims.
New genetic sequencing of blood samples which had been stored since the 1970s showed that the strain infecting him had circulated among gay men in New York for several years before he arrived in the US in 1974. So he did not introduce the virus to North America; he was a victim.
The revelation proves that the epidemic’s early days had been overshadowed by a witch hunt.
Federal health officials said homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs and heroin users were all victims — thus effectively calling them all carriers. Many individuals felt the sting of suspicion, including Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac who was bullied and barred from middle school after he contracted H.I.V. from a blood-clotting factor.
Mr. Dugas’s name emerged when Randy Shilts, the journalist who himself later died of AIDS, published his best-selling history of the epidemic, “And the Band Played On.” Through interviews, he found the real name of the mysterious “Patient O,” for “outside California,” in a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linking 40 men with AIDS on two coasts.
Mr. Shilts never claimed that Mr. Dugas was the nation’s first case, but alarmist journalism during his book publicity tour created the image of a libertine who, as one headline screamed, “Gave Us AIDS.”
“The current study provides further evidence that patient 57, the individual identified both by the letter O and the number 0, was not patient zero of the North American epidemic,” said Richard McKay, historian and co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge, adding that the authors of the original study had already pointed out he was unlikely to be the source. He said a “trail of error and hype” had led to Dugas being branded with the “Patient Zero” title.
“Gaétan Dugas is 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,” said McKay.
The revelation has caused medical experts to consider the ethics involved when patients identities are revealed. Is it right to hunt down the first case in any outbreak, to find every Patient Zero?