In a narrative changing announcement Wednesday, researchers exonerated Gaétan Dugas, a.k.a. Patient Zero, from starting the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Findings released in the journal of Nature concluded the strain of HIV responsible for almost all of the AIDS cases in the United States came from Zaire, Africa via Haiti in 1967. The virus was first contracted in New York in 1971, eventually spreading to San Francisco in 1976.
The Patient Zero story came from a 1984 study of 40 gay men who had developed Kaposi’s sarcoma or other signs of late-stage AIDS. Dugas, a French Canadian flight attendant, reported having around 250 sexual partners a year and gave investigators 72 names.
He died in 1984 but his legend lived on in stories and tabloid headlines. The New York Post labeled Dugas as “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS.”
Scientists at the University of Arizona were able to clear Dugas of such a dubious distinction by analyzing stored blood samples from health trials in the 1970s. By screening samples from New York and San Francisco, scientists were able to determine eight different HIV genetic codes.
“We can place the most precise dates on the origins of the U.S. epidemic at about 1970 or 1971,” Dr. Michael Worobey, one of the researchers, told the BBC.
In response to the analysis, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis applauded the correction, but acknowledged stigma is still a huge barrier in defeating the disease. GMHC Chief Executive Officer Kelsey Louie released the following statement:
“The findings released today tell us that the strain of HIV responsible for almost all AIDS cases in the United States came to New York City around 1971, debunking the myth of ‘Patient Zero.’ Gay Men’s Health Crisis was formed as the effects of the deadly virus began to wreak havoc and take their toll. Society, and in particular the media, were all too eager to cast blame on a single person, rather than reflect on the stigma they were creating and the lack of political will to actually do something about the disease. The stigma created in the past is still strong today and prevents many from even getting tested for HIV for fear of being labeled a carrier. Were it not for Larry Kramer, Larry Moss, Edmund White and the other founders of GMHC, we would not be as close as we are now to ending the epidemic and someday finding a cure.”
Meanwhile, at the World AIDS Museum in Wilton Manors, the news of Dugas’ exoneration was not a complete surprise.
“Unfortunately people still think he’s the villain,” said Ed Sparan, WAM operations manager. “We just weren’t connecting the dots.”
Sparan said when he gives tours of the museum he often cites cases of people having contracted HIV well before the 1980s. When he tells the story of an autopsy report showing an African man with HIV in his blood as far back as 1959, “people’s eyes get wide open,” Sparan said.