Gaetan Dugas, formerly ‘Patient Zero’

The genetic codes sequenced from the virus of eight men infected early in the AIDS epidemic don’t match those from Gaetan Dugas, the man dubbed Patient Zero and blamed for bringing HIV to North America.

Dugas, who died of AIDS in 1984, was a flight attendant for Air Canada. When researchers from the Centers for Disease Control interviewed men in Los Angeles with AIDS early in the epidemic, Dugas’ name often came up.

Originally, the CDC researcher referred to the California men as LA1, LA2, etc. Dugas was referred to as Patient O, as in outside of California. That was read as Patient 0, as in first patient, back at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

In his book, And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts referred to Dugas as Patient Zero. Shilts said he thought it was a catchy title, but since then the AIDS epidemic in North America has been blamed on him.

Dugas was a perfect target. He traveled. He was extremely good looking, charismatic, foreign with an accent and completely, unapologetically open about being gay.

He was also very helpful to CDC researchers. He traveled to Atlanta to give samples of blood, he also offered lists of names of people who may also have been infected.

New evidence suggests that early cases came to North America from Haiti around 1970. The disease spread in New York for a number of years.

Personally, I worked with a gay man who died in 1976 of symptoms similar to those that became familiar to the gay community in the early 1980s. Not until 1981, when Dugas was named as Patient O or Patient 0 was there evidence that those dying of the disease were sexual partners.

But HIV in the U.S. definitely predated Dugas’ exposure to the virus, removing blame from him as being the person who brought AIDS to North America.