The Current

New research clears Gaétan Dugas as 'patient zero' in AIDS epidemic

For decades Gaétan Dugas was known as "patient zero" — the man who brought HIV/AIDS to the U.S. Now new research shows the French-Canadian was never a breakthrough link to spreading the disease. The Current questions the need for an origin story at all.
CHENGDU, CHINA - DECEMBER 1: (CHINA OUT) A migrant worker wears a red ribbon during an event organized by the local government to promote HIV/AIDS knowledge among migrant workers on December 1, 2005 in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, southwest China. China has pledged to keep the number of people living with HIV/AIDS below 1.5 million by 2010, Health Minister Gao Qiang stated at a media conference. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Read story transcript

Gaétan Dugas was a French-Canadian flight attendant — and one of the victims in the early days of AIDS, dying of the disease in 1984. After his death, Dugas was named as the North American "patient zero" in journalist Randy Shilts' book on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, And The Band Played On.

But new research has exonerated Dugas, and called the narrative around him into question.

"[Randy Shilts] became convinced that this individual was an example of a villain and an irresponsible gay man," says Richard McKay, co-author of a new paper in the journal Nature that cleared Dugas' name.

Back in 2005, as part of McKay's master's thesis that later grew into doctoral research, he wanted to look into the impulse to identify the earliest cases of an epidemic.
New research debunks Gaétan Dugas as "patient zero" in the HIV epidemic. (Wikipedia)

"There are overlapping interests to understand why from a public health perspective: sometimes to implement preventive measures, and sometimes to lay blame."

However, McKay tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that it's important to point out that the CDC researchers in their original paper "never suggested... in print that this was the first patient."

McKay says the idea of a patient zero in the North American HIV/AIDS epidemic grew inadvertently through a combination of factors, but includes the "CDC's inadvertent use of a zero instead of an "O" to represent an individual in their study."

University of Toronto bioethicist Kerry Bowman says the case raises bigger questions about identifying specific people as the first patients in disease outbreaks.

"The destructive element is huge," says Bowman, citing other examples from "Typhoid Mary," a cook named as the source of an outbreak in New York a century ago, to a toddler named as the first patient with swine flu in Mexico in 2009.

"Things become conflated," says Bowman. 

"These patients...did not cause the illness. It gets turned around in people's minds, that these individual people are responsible for massive implications."

Listen to the full segment.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien and Sujata Berry.