AIDS Patient Zero Myth Busted: Was Gaetan Dugas Wrongly Accused Of Bringing HIV To America?

Gaetan Dugas was a “sexually promiscuous” male flight attendant who was deemed HIV’s “Patient Zero” by the media in the 1980s after he slept with American men despite being HIV-positive. Dugas, a Canadian, was blasted in the media for being the man who brought HIV to the United States, noting he was a homosexual who had sex with numerous partners despite being infected with the deadly virus. However, new research suggests that while Dugas did spread the disease, he was not “Patient Zero.” In fact, the study found that HIV arrived in the United States as early as 1970 and originated in the Caribbean, and that Dugas was not in the right place to have infected those individuals.

The New York Mag reports that Gaetan Dugas may have posthumously had his name cleared as “the man who brought AIDS to America.” Dugas was an openly gay flight attendant from Canada who was called “sexually promiscuous” by media headlines in the 1980s. The media grabbed hold of the Dugas story after it was revealed the flight attendant who had frequented the United States was diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer frequently found in AIDS patients. Though doctors and scientists in the 1980s studying the Dugas case did not blame the flight attendant for bringing AIDS to America, the media did.

In fact, headlines in the 1980s blasted Dugas as the “index case” for American AIDS, “Patient Zero,” and “the man who brought AIDS to America.” The articles all stemmed from a book written by Randy Shilts in 1987, called And The Band Plays On. In the book, Shilts calls out Dugas as the man responsible for spreading HIV across the country from one end of the United States to the other.

“There’s no doubt that Gaetan played a key role in spreading the new virus from one end of the United States to the other.”

However, despite Shilts bold claims that “there’s no doubt,” it seems that modern scientists disagree and may have cleared Dugas’ name as “Patient Zero.” The Daily Mail reports that new studies on the origins of HIV in America suggests that the first case of the virus in America was in New York in the 1970s, a decade before Dugas would be charged with spreading the virus.

Researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson have been studying the “family tree” of the AIDS/ HIV spread in the United States and found that Gaetan’s mutation of the virus and spread falls in the middle of the tree, not the top.

“Dugas’s version of the virus fell in the middle of the tree, Science wrote, not at the beginning — showing that Dugas did not bring the first case to the United States.”

Patient Zero HIV
ROF. MICHAEL WOROBEY/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

In fact, the researchers found that the first case appeared in New York in the early 1970s and that it was quickly spread by someone to San Francisco. It was also detailed that the case in New York had origins from either Haiti or another Caribbean island, as the genetic mutations suggest. With the new research clearing Gaetan as the first person to bring HIV to America, the researchers note that the flight attendant was helpful in creating the first early record set of contacts tracing for the virus.

“Nonetheless, he had been very helpful with researchers from the CDC, providing them in 1982 with the best early set of records for contact tracing they could find—seventy-two names of his previous sexual contacts.”

With his name cleared, Dr. Richard Elion, an HIV/AIDS researcher at George Washington University, says that he hopes the general population’s narrative on HIV/ AIDS will change from a “bad guy” spreading the disease to a general risk.

“It was too scary to think HIV was a general risk due to the vagaries of biology rather than a callous ‘bad guy.’ “

While we do not know exactly who brought AIDS/HIV to America from the Caribbean, scientists have been able to identify exactly where and how AIDS originated in the human population, and it wasn’t through sexual contact.

“The most likely way it jumped species was through a person Quammen calls the ‘Cut Hunter’ — a man who hunted and butchered a chimpanzee infected with simian immunodeficiency virus and was wounded in the process. The chimp’s blood mingled with his through the cuts in his skin.”

According to studies, the first case of human AIDS/ HIV was around 1908.

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