who is Gaëtan Dugas, long mistakenly considered patient zero in the United States?

The intruder of the news gives each evening a spotlight on a personality who could have passed under the radars of the news.

This May 20, 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication, in the journal Science, of the first description of the virus responsible for AIDS by the teams of the Institut Pasteur. The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of the extent to which searching for the original patient could be perceived as an emergency, a societal or even media fantasy. The experience of AIDS shows that it does not have much scientific interest. In this case, Gaëtan Dugas was unfairly considered the zero patient of AIDS in the United States.

>>> AIDS: scientists bury the myth of “patient zero”

He was born in Quebec in 1953, Steward of Air Canada, he travels a lot. It’s his job. Very pretty boy, blond, fine mustache, openly homosexual, an attractive boy who likes to live and who visibly multiplies the conquests. In June 1980, he suffered from Kaposi’s disease, a vascular tumor caused by a very particular herpesvirus. It will in fact be one of the symptoms of HIV that will be identified the following year within the gay communities of California and New York. It will quickly be nicknamed “gay cancer”, then called AIDS. Gaëtan Dugas is 27 years old.

Two years later, he participated, he even cooperated actively in a study on the first AIDS patients at the Center for Disease Control: he was “patient 57”. He cooperates so much that he allows researchers to identify eight other patients among his partners, four on the East Coast, four in California. This helps to establish the probable sexual transmission of the disease.

Designated “patient 0” due to confusion

Gaëtan Dugas died in 1984, aged 31. This is when confusion will have terrible consequences. The Canadian stewart is designated in an epidemiological study that year as “patient O”, for “Out of California” (out of California). But the O is mistakenly read as zero. He becomes the perfect culprit, the one who introduced the disease to the North American continent.

The term “patient zero” appeared in 1987 in a book And the Band Played of a man named Randy Shilts. This denier insists in particular on the fact that he continued to have a lot of unprotected sex at the end of his life, when he knew the risks for his partners. “You shouldn’t be afraid of someone who has AIDS or someone who has symptoms because there is no particular reason for you to come into contact with the infectious agent. “isn’t because you have a partner who has AIDS that you have AIDS. It’s a terrible signal that you give to people as if they should be afraid of these people?” he declared during a meeting in 1983, with AIDS patients. At the podium a manager replies that he should warn the partner at least who will then decide.

“Whitewashed” 36 years after his death

Research continues and allows progress, particularly in understanding the incubation period. It was then that researchers discovered cases well before Gaëtan Dugas, at the end of the 1970s. Michael Worobey, a molecular biologist from the University of Tucson in Arizona, analyzed the genetic sequence of HIV viral strains in blood samples dating from 1978 and 1979, among homosexual and bisexual men in San Francisco and New York. By comparing them with Gaëtan Dugas’ sample from 1983, he realizes that his viral genome is no longer quite the same as the very first ones found in New York.

It will be officially “laundered” in 2016. For the general public, it is the documentary of a journalist, Laurie Lynd, Killing patient zero, which does justice to Gaëtan Dugas in 2019, with many witnesses from the time. She also has the honesty to say that the journalist who in 1987 had pointed out Gaëtan Dugas, had also wanted to speed up awareness by telling himself that “as long as there is no name, no one cares”. Since Internet users still pay tribute to him.

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