The Man Who Gave Us Aids?

By, Ariel Branson 

Gaëtan Dugas is most famously known as “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS,” a title given to him by an article published in The New York Post. However, he has finally been cleared of this unfair and dishonest title by a study published in the science journal Nature. Recently, Nature announced, “We recovered the HIV-1 genome from the individual known as ‘Patient 0’ and found neither biological nor historical evidence that he was the primary case in the U.S. or for subtype B as a whole.” Dugas, who was a flight attendant from Canada, was believed to be the sole person who brought HIV/AIDS to the United States after contracting it on a trip to Africa and Haiti. Back in the day, Haiti seemed to be a likely origin for the disease’s introduction to America because the U.S. imported blood from there and the country was a sex-tourism destination for gay men. However, the strain of HIV that has been found to be responsible for most cases in the U.S. spread here around 1971, three years before Dugas began visiting gay bars in 1974. Though science has proven that Dugas did not bring HIV/AIDS to the U.S., “Patient 0” has become unfairly synonymous with his name in the history books.

The story of how Dugas became known as “Patient 0” is an interesting one. In the original studies of the virus, participants were labeled “Patient LA,” “Patient LA2,” etc. based upon the city in California where they resided. However, since Dugas was from Canada he was labeled “Patient O” for “outside-of-California.” This was later changed to “Patient 0” by Randy Shilts, a journalist who would later die from AIDS himself, in his novel And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS epidemic. Shilts overheard people at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) refer to Dugas as “Patient 0” instead of “Patient O.” He believed that this moniker was catchier and would work better in his novel. The media quickly dubbed Dugas “Patient 0,” the man who brought HIV/AIDS to America and, in so doing, created a phrase that has become engrained in our vernacular. Shilts’ novel also discusses how Dugas knowingly infecting others with the disease and ignored doctors who warned him to stop having unprotected sex. Though Dugas passed away three years before Shilts’ novel was published, his legacy became one dirtied by misconceptions and falsehoods.

Dugas was not the villain the media portrayed him to be; rather, he was a charismatic and kind man who contributed a great deal to HIV/AIDS research. He even volunteered helping other AIDS patients until his death. By keeping a detailed list of his sexual partners, Dugas was able to give 72 names to the CDC in order to help curb the spread of the infection to other homosexual men. By clearing his name, it is possible to fight some of the stigma that is linked to HIV and AIDS as a whole. To this day many fear getting tested and disclosing their status to partners out of fear of being ostracized and condemned in the same way that Dugas was. The United Nations program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has reported, “Research has shown that stigma and discrimination undermine HIV prevention efforts by making people afraid to seek HIV information, services and modalities to reduce their risk of infection and to adopt safer behaviors lest these actions raise suspicion about their HIV status.”

It’s time to replace the term “Patient 0” with “Index Patient” and be wary of the fact that it is often impossible and damaging to link the spread of a disease to any one individual. The exoneration of so called “Patient 0” is a bright point in the challenging history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Justin Ayars