A combination of research, both historical and genetic in nature has revealed the error and hype that led to the coining of the term ‘Patient Zero’ and the blaming of one man for the spread of HIV athwart North America.
The new study proves that a flight attendant who became notorious as the human epicentre of the US AIDS crisis of the 1980s and was called the first person to be labeled the ‘Patient Zero’ of any epidemic was simply one of many thousands infected in the years before HIV was recognized.
Research by a historian from the University of Cambridge and the genetic testing of decades-old blood samples by a team of US scientists has demonstrated that Gaétan Dugas, a French-Canadian gay man posthumously blamed by the media for spreading HIV across North America, was not the epidemic’s ‘Patient Zero’.
Dugas had before his death provided investigators a significant amount of personal information to assist with studies into whether AIDS was caused by sexually transmitted agent and McKay’s research suggests that this, combined with confusion between a letter and a number, contributed to the invention of Patient Zero and the global defamation of Dugas.
“Gaetan 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 felled epidemics with malicious intent,” said McKay.
During the course of his research McKay located the immediate roots of the term “Patient Zero” in an early ‘cluster study’ of US AIDS patients and found that reports emerged in early 1982 of historical sexual links between several gay men with AIDS in Los Angeles and investigators from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) undertook a study to interview these men for the names of their sexual contacts.
They uncovered more links across Southern California, but one connection was named several times despite not residing in the state: Case 057, a widely travelled airline employee.
After 30 years, analysis of the HIV-1 genome taken from Dugas’s 1983 blood sample, contextualised through McKay’s historical research, shows that he was not even a base case for HIV strains at the time, and that a trail of error and hype led to his condemnation as the so-called Patient Zero.
“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,” said McKay.