HIV ‘Patient Zero’ cleared after years of blame for AIDS crisis
A man frequently blamed for spreading HIV to the US was not responsible for the initial outbreak, a study has confirmed.
During the early AIDS crisis, gay French-Canadian airline steward Gaëtan Dugas was frequently named-and-shamed in the press as ‘Patient Zero’, blamed for spreading an HIV outbreak in the Caribbean to New York.
However, a study this week concluded that he was not responsible – and a simple misunderstanding was responsible for years of blame.
Mr Dugas was originally designated as ‘Patient O’ in 1984 Los Angeles research, denoting ‘Outside of California’.
This was misinterpreted as ‘Patient 0’ – incorrectly identifying him as the source of the AIDS epidemic – and widely disseminated in the press alongside reports of his promiscuity.
Analysis from a blood sample confirmed the air steward was definitively not responsible for the transmission of HIV from the Caribbean, due to the HIV strain present.
Richard McKay, author of the new study, said: “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
“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.
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“In many ways the historical evidence has been pointing to the fallacy of this particular notion of patient zero for decades.
“This individual was simply one of thousands infected before HIV/Aids was recognised.
The study notes: “Media coverage insinuated that this individual was the source of the North American epidemic and an exemplar of dangerous disease transmission — ideas which found a global audience.
“However, we found that the HIV-1 genome from this individual appeared typical of US strains of the time [and not linked to] the deeper Caribbean subtype B diversity, in a manner that might be suggestive of a special role.
“In short, we found no evidence that Patient 0 was the first person infected by this lineage of HIV-1.”
Dugas died in March 1984 aged 31, as a result of AIDS-related kidney failure.