Challenging the Origin of HIV.

by brennyk on December 17, 2016 - 2:34am

     Dina Fine Maron's article "New HIV Evidence Dispels Patient Zero Myth" shows the radical shift in what initial researchers thought they knew about HIV, and what new research has uncovered. The article starts off talking about the popular misconception about HIV's origin in America, which until recently was widely accepted. This misconception was that a flight attendant by the name of Gaetan Dugas was to be blamed for HIV's introduction to the United States. Gaetan was labeled "patient zero", or the initial patient of the epidemic investigation. Dina goes on to write about the many factors that led to the "patient zero" narrative. She talks of one mix-up that came directly from within the CDC that started with an investigation of an HIV cluster in California, an early hotbed for the AIDS epidemic. One of the investigators, William Darro, stated that Dugas was referred to by the agency as "Patient O" which actually was representative of Dugas' Outside-of-California residential status. This title evolved from "Patient O" into "Patient Zero" and helped the "Patient Zero" narrative gain public footing. 

     While it is very likely Gaetan Dugas transmitted the disease to many of his multitudinous sexual partners (he admitted to having had unprotected sex with around 250 men per year between 1979 and 1981), researchers have him to thank for helping the scientific community gain a better understanding of the origins of AIDS.  Dugas’ honesty with doctors about his sexual relations, as well as the fact that he was able to name many of his partners during the period, helped researchers piece together a better picture of AIDS and how it spread across the United States. Using information from Dugas’ interviews, researchers were able to determine that some of the men who were originally thought to have contracted AIDS from Dugas, had actually contracted a different mutation of the virus from the one with which Dugas was infected.  This was one of the greatest steps towards the dispulsion of the Patient Zero theory.

     Thanks to the availability of blood samples from some of Dugas’ sexual partners, researchers were able to determine that at least some of them were infected with HIV prior to sexual contact with Dugas, which in and of itself takes much credibility from the Patient Zero narrative. While some early cases of HIV in New York have been linked to Dugas, it is now known he is not the initial cause for the virus's spread from California to New York. It has now been found that there were earlier cases that were never confirmed at the time, because these people were asymptomatic with a disease that no one had known about. 

     Personally, I am really happy to see more articles that prove the public's blame of Gaetan Dugas wrong. I believe that the initial claim, that a single person was to blame for the coast-to-coast spread of HIV, was irresponsible for a number of reasons. For one, this claim has attached such a negative stigma against the gay community that still lingers in today's society. The Patient Zero theory was accepted for so long and reported with such confidence that it is still being taught in my old high school, even with all of the readily available information debunking it. I think that my generation is very internet-oriented so they may be able to break societally accepted ideas such as this one, which could be fantastic in giving the next generation the true facts of the AIDS epidemic. As a gay man, I believe that any new reports about the times of the AIDS epidemic will affect myself and members of the LGBTQ community. I believe this because most of society has constantly put this time in history on the shoulders of this community, wrongfully. This article makes it seem that with all of this new information, there is still much more research to be done on the origins of HIV. Will researchers ever be able to pinpoint the first case of HIV in the world? My guess is probably not, but this article makes me hopeful that our understanding of HIV/AIDS will continue to evolve. With continued research we may eventually find a cure.


Fantastic article, Brendan. It shows that everyone wants a scape goat and scientists might rush to the conclusion forced upon them by the public. Science is not infallible which is why the scientific method stresses repeat-ability of methods and results and hard measurable data and significant analysis of that data. I don't know if you ever listen to podcasts but I'm a fan of Radiolab. They've had several podcasts on "Patient Zero". Here's the link to one that you might enjoy.

I actually love Radiolab, there are just so many that I must have missed this one! Just listened, I'm always blown away at how great the hosts are at breaking down each segment. The amount of "once in a blue moon" events that it took to cause SIV in the first chimpanzee is unimaginable to me. Also, by them explaining it in a reverse chronological order was a great way of keeping the listener intrigued, thanks for the share!

What a great article, Brendan. It is very interesting to see a theory being proved wrong like that. I think is very unfair to blame the LGBTQ community for the HIV spread when we know there are A LOT of people who was(is) negligent when it comes to safe sex. It is great to know they are taking this huge responsibility off the shoulders of a singer person.


I definitely agree with you on how unfair the spread of blame was for the AIDS epidemic. It’s unfortunate how the patient zero myth became this awful condemnation on our community. It just goes to show how minority communities will always be held to an impossible standard. If it were a straight “patient zero,” no one would have cast off that community and stigmatize like they did with the LGBTQ community. In this article, AIDS activist Larry Kramer discusses the patient zero media witch hunt and how the LGBTQ community was vilified.

Great video, thanks for sharing! It's nice to have solid and accurate perspectives of people who were at the forefront of the gay rights movement. I completely agree that if "patient zero" was straight, the media would not have jumped to such harmful conclusions on that whole community.

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