A New Look at AIDS Origins
When the AIDS crisis began to unfold in 1980’s America, people everywhere were looking for a way to make sense of it all. It was a mysterious, merciless disease that led to more questions than answers. As for the origin of the virus? HIV seemed to come out of nowhere, like a malevolent medical apparition. That changed with the massively influential 1987 book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, journalist Randy Shilts’ investigation into the history of the disease. The takeaway? We had one man to thank for the spread of AIDS in America: Gaetan Dugas.
Dugas was a charming, handsome foreigner; a Canadian flight attendant with multiple sexual partners. Earlier in the decade, Dugas had been connected to at least AIDS cases in America. He was at the epicenter of a devastating public health earthquake. But how did we know?
Shilts’ investigation took him to the CDC, where he looked at files of AIDS cases stretching back for years. Dugas’ file caught his eye in particular, thanks to a peculiar label: ‘Patient 0’. It designated him as the single-cause of the spread of the autoimmune disease. Shilts wove that crucial detail into his story. And although there was no cure, and though treatment was rudimentary, at least the public had some closure on where it came from.
But he, and by extension the rest of us, were utterly mistaken.
As reported by NPR, scientists who recently began sequencing the HIV virus from early victims realized that there was no way Dugas could have been responsible for its spread. New research shows that HIV actually came to America in the 1970s, from Haiti. By the time Dugas arrived on the scene, the virus was already here; it just went undetected by doctors who had seen nothing like it. As for the ‘Patient 0’ hypothesis? Chalk it up to a typo, or some really bad handwriting.
When the CDC’s William Darrow started studying the disease in the early 80’s, he used a coded system to label the patients he spoke interviewed in California. For example, those infected from Los Angeles were called LA1, LA2, etc. But that 0? It was actually an O, for for ‘outside of California’. That fundamental misreading by the CDC led to Dugas’s urban legend and infamy. But thanks to this new research and clarification, his name has been cleared.