Gaetan Dugas, the man blamed for spreading HIV across North America in the 1980s, referred to as “Patient Zero” in Randy Shilt’s book: And The Band Played On has been exonerated and it has been proven that he was not the initial source of the deadly virus in America and Europe as a new study suggests.
A combination of historical and genetic research shows that flight Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant, who became the human epicenter of the US AIDS crisis of the 1980’s was simply one of many thousands of the infected in the years before HIV was recognized.
Research by a historian from the University of Cambridge in the UK and the genetic testing of decades-old blood samples by a team of US scientists has demonstrated that Dugas was not the epidemic’s ‘Patient Zero’.
Before death, Dugas provided investigators a significant amount of personal information to assist with studies into whether AIDS was caused by sexually transmitted agent.
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. This was further fueled by Shilts who intentionally created a scapegoat to sensationalize his novel And the Band Played On.
Phil Tiemeyer, author of “Plane Queer” documented his interview with Michael Denneny, Shilts’ publisher. Denneny described the initial dismal prospects for “And The Band Played On” that motivated them to find a more creative way to promote the book. The solution was to use Patient Zero and present him as the handsome, promiscuous French-Canadian airline steward who may have brought AIDS to America. This was the pathway to the bestseller list, and it worked.
“We lowered ourselves to yellow journalism. My publicist told me, ‘Sex, death, glamour, and, best of all, he is a foreigner, that would be the icing on the cake,’” said Shilts’ editor on the book, Michael Denneny, in an interview. “That was the only way we could get them to pay attention.” He (Dugas) “was representing all the people who refused to stop having unprotected sex even after they became ill.”
“Back in the bathhouse, when the moaning stopped, the young man rolled over on his back for a cigarette. Gaetan Dugas reached up for the lights, turning up the rheostat slowly so his partner’s eyes would have time to adjust. He then made a point of eyeing the purple lesions on his chest. ‘Gay cancer,’ he said, almost as if he were talking to himself. ‘Maybe you’ll get it, too.’” – And The Band Played On
And with that paragraph of a made up interaction that never happened Randy Shilts put the blame of the AIDS epidemic on one of its unfortunate victims to sell books. A victim of the plague who could not defend himself. And whose memory for the past 30 years has been blemished by the lie. (Dugas died in 1985. ATBPO was released in 1987.)
Because of Shilt’s book Gaetan Dugas is one of the most demonized patients in history, and one of a long line of individuals and groups vilified in the belief that they somehow fueled epidemics with malicious intent.
While his research traces this impulse to blame back several centuries, McKay located the immediate roots of the term “Patient Zero” in an early ‘cluster study’ of US AIDS patients.
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 traveled airline employee.
After 30+ years, analysis of the HIV-1 genome taken from Dugas’s 1983 blood sample, contextualized 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.
That is all.
Nothing more. Nothing less.