Gaëtan Dugas

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Gaëtan Dugas
Gaëtan Dugas.jpg
Born(1953-02-20)February 20, 1953
DiedMarch 30, 1984(1984-03-30) (aged 31)
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Cause of deathKidney failure
OccupationFlight attendant
Known forLong misdescribed as "Patient Zero" of the North American AIDS epidemic[1]

Gaëtan Dugas (French: [ɡaetɑ̃ dyɡa]; February 20, 1953 – March 30, 1984), a Canadian flight attendant, was a relatively early HIV patient who once was widely regarded as "Patient Zero" or the primary case for AIDS in the United States. His case was later found to have been only one of many that began in the 1970s, according to a September 2016 study published in Nature.[2][3][4]

In March 1984, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study tracked the sexual liaisons and practices of gay and bisexual men, especially in California and New York. Dugas was code-named as "Patient O" (the letter "O", not the number "0") to indicate "Out-of-California". Many readers of the report—including some in the CDC—misconstrued the letter "O" to be the numeral "0" (zero), resulting in the origin of the term "Patient Zero."[1][5] The extent to which HIV/AIDS was known about in the early 1980s, how it was spread, or when Dugas was diagnosed are disputed.[6]

Dugas worked as a flight attendant for Air Canada[1][7] and died in Quebec City in March 1984 as a result of kidney failure caused by AIDS-related infections.[8]

"Patient Zero" hypothesis[edit]

A 1984 paper[9] linked 40 AIDS patients by sexual contact. Of those patients, Dugas was the first to experience an onset of symptoms of AIDS. In the above graph, Dugas is represented by the number 0. Because Dugas was very forthcoming in helping researchers, Michael Worobey concludes there may be ascertainment bias in the study.[5]

A study published in The American Journal of Medicine in 1984 traced many early HIV infections to an unnamed infected gay male flight attendant.[9] Initially, however, the CDC researcher, Dr. William Darrow, who was studying cases in Los Angeles, California, referred to Dugas not as "patient zero", but as "patient O", the letter "O" standing for "Out-of-California".[5][1]

Dugas is featured prominently in Randy Shilts's book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), which documents the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Shilts portrays Dugas as having almost sociopathic behavior by allegedly intentionally infecting, or at least recklessly endangering, others with the virus. Dugas is described as being a charming, handsome sexual athlete who, according to his own estimation, averaged hundreds of sex partners per year.[1] He claimed to have had over 2,500 sexual partners across North America since becoming sexually active in 1972.[10] In David France's 2016 book How to Survive a Plague, Shilts's editor expressed his regret for having "made a conscious decision to vilify Dugas in the book and publicity campaign in order to spur sales."[11]

Genetic analysis historically provided some support for the Patient Zero theory, in which Dugas was believed to be part of a cluster of homosexual men who traveled frequently, were extremely sexually active, and died of AIDS at a very early stage in the epidemic.[12]

Re-examination of "Patient Zero" hypothesis[edit]

A number of authorities have since voiced reservations about the implications of the CDC's Patient Zero study and characterizations of Dugas as being responsible for bringing HIV to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.[1] In the Patient Zero study, the average length of time between sexual contact and the onset of symptoms was ​10 12 months.[9] While Shilts's book does not make such an allegation, the rumor that Dugas was the principal disseminator of the virus became widespread.[13] In 1988, Andrew R. Moss published an opposing view in The New York Review of Books.[14]

In 2016, a group of researchers led by evolutionary biologist Dr. Michael Worobey conducted a genetic study that looked at blood samples taken from gay and bisexual men in 1978 and 1979 as part of a hepatitis B study, and based on the results of the data, concluded that Dugas was not the source of the virus in the U.S. "On the family tree of the virus, Dugas fell in the middle, not at the beginning."[15] "Beliefs about Patient Zero," Worobey concludes, "are unsupported by scientific data."[15] Worobey's paper, published in Nature in October 2016, finds "neither biological nor historical evidence that he was the primary case in the US or for subtype B as a whole."[2][3][4]

A study by historian Richard McKay of Cambridge and others identified several causes for the Patient Zero myth. During early CDC analysis of cases in California, patient 057 (Dugas) was nicknamed patient "O" for "Out-of-California", but this was interpreted by others as Patient Zero.[1] Dugas was particularly helpful in tracing his network of partners, providing names and addresses for many of them, which was further expanded because others remembered his distinctive name.[13] Although many of the patients analyzed reported in excess of 1000 sexual partners, most remembered "only a handful" of names, making their contacts to other cases more difficult to trace.[16][4]

Dr. Robert M. Grant, an AIDS researcher at the University of California, has stated: "No one wants to be the Patient Zero of their village. But this may be helpful because it says, 'Just because you are the first to be diagnosed doesn't mean you started the epidemic.'"[3]

Two films, John Greyson's musical comedy film Zero Patience (1993)[17] and Laurie Lynd's documentary Killing Patient Zero (2019),[18] have also debunked the Patient Zero myth around Dugas.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Johnson, Brian D. (April 17, 2019). "How a typo created a scapegoat for the AIDS epidemic". Maclean's. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  2. ^ a b Gallagher, James (October 26, 2016). "HIV Patient Zero cleared by science". BBC News Online. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c McNeil, Donald G Jr. (October 26, 2016). "H.I.V. Arrived in the U.S. Long Before 'Patient Zero'". The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c Worobey, Michael; Thomas D. Watts; et al. (October 26, 2016). "1970s and 'Patient 0' HIV-1 genomes illuminate early HIV/AIDS history in North America". Nature. 539 (7627): 98–101. doi:10.1038/nature19827. PMC 5257289. PMID 27783600.
  5. ^ a b c Doucleff, Michaeleen (October 26, 2016). "Researchers Clear 'Patient Zero' From AIDS Origin Story". National Public Radio. Retrieved August 9, 2019.
  6. ^ McKay, Richard A. (2014). "Patient Zero". Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 88 (1): 161–194. doi:10.1353/bhm.2014.0005. ISSN 0007-5140. PMC 4046389. PMID 24769806.
  7. ^ "La découverte de la maladie — Sida, les premières années" [Discovering the illness — AIDS, the first years]. Radio-Canada (in French). January 17, 1992. Archived from the original on August 18, 2004.
  8. ^ Shilts, Randy (1988). And The Band Played On. Penguin. pp. 439. ISBN 978-0-14-011130-9.
  9. ^ a b c Auerbach, D.M.; W.W. Darrow; H.W. Jaffe; J.W. Curran (1984). "Cluster of cases of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Patients linked by sexual contact". The American Journal of Medicine. 76 (3): 487–92. doi:10.1016/0002-9343(84)90668-5. PMID 6608269.
  10. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm (2000). The Tipping Point. Little, Brown and Company. pp. 21. ISBN 978-0-316-34662-7.
  11. ^ France, David (December 1, 2016). How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS. Pan Macmillan. p. PT79. ISBN 978-1-5098-3941-4. Retrieved December 28, 2016.
  12. ^ Kuiken, C; Thakallapalli, R; Esklid, A; de Ronde, A (November 1, 2000). "Genetic analysis reveals epidemiologic patterns in the spread of human immunodeficiency virus". American Journal of Epidemiology. 152 (9): 814–22. doi:10.1093/aje/152.9.814. PMID 11085392.
  13. ^ a b Crewe, Tom (September 27, 2018). "Here was a plague". London Review of Books. Retrieved September 29, 2018.
  14. ^ Moss, Andrew R. (December 8, 1988). "AIDS Without End". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved December 2, 2006.
  15. ^ a b Straube, Trenton (May 16, 2016). "Mapping Out Early AIDS in the U.S." POZ.
  16. ^ "New research reveals accidental making of 'Patient Zero' myth during 1980s AIDS crisis". University of Cambridge. October 26, 2016.
  17. ^ Baumgarten, Marjorie (April 1, 1994). "Zero Patience". Austin Chronicle.
  18. ^ "Documentary Killing Patient Zero seeks to restore reputation of Quebec man unfairly targeted in AIDS epidemic". Toronto Star, April 25, 2019.

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