'Patient Zero,' Who Brought AIDS to Our Shores, Actually Didn't

Canadian was just one of many early cases
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 27, 2016 3:02 AM CDT
Updated Oct 27, 2016 4:33 AM CDT
Research Exonerates AIDS 'Patient Zero'
An AIDS ribbon is shown in this stock photo.   (Getty Images/instamatic)

(Newser) – The French Canadian flight attendant dubbed "Patient Zero" in the AIDS epidemic in North America was no such thing, researchers say. In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers analyzed HIV genomes and determined that the virus came to the US from Haiti around 1971 and had already infected many people in cities including New York and San Francisco before Air Canada flight attendant Gaetan Dugas contracted it. CDC scientist William Darrow says that when he was investigating the emerging epidemic in Los Angeles in the early '80s, he identified patients by code (e.g., "LA1" and "LA2" for two men in Los Angeles)—and Dugas was the letter "O" for "outside of California," not the numeral zero.

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Dugas, who was gay and had hundreds of sexual partners a year between 1979 and 1981, died of AIDS in 1984. He was called "Patient Zero" in the book And the Band Played On about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Dugas "has every trait of a villain that America is looking for in the AIDS crisis," Kansas State University historian Phil Tiemeyer tells NPR. "He's gay and unashamed about it. He's beautiful. He's even a foreigner who speaks with this seductive accent. He's the perfect villain." In reality, Tiemeyer says, Dugas was a highly compassionate man who did his best to help early AIDS researchers before he died. (A "perfect storm" allowed the HIV virus to emerge in an African city.)

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