Cambridge historian helps clear man blamed of bringing AIDS to America

A 1980s Red Cross campaign poster Image credit: United States Department of Health and Human Services

A Cambridge historian has helped to exonerate Gaëtan Dugas, the man blamed for bringing HIV/AIDS to America.

The French-Canadian was branded “Patient Zero” and described as “The Man Who Gave Us Aids” by the New York Post.

But a study from the University has shown that Dugas was one of the many thousands of people infected by the virus in the 1980s before it was eventually recognised as AIDS.

An international team of researchers painstakingly reconstructed the route by which HIV/AIDS entered the US from the Caribbean. Using new findings and existing data, they mapped the spread of the virus from non-human primates to humans in Africa, with the subtype prevalent in the Western world arriving in New York by 1971 from the Caribbean.

From New York it spread to San Francisco and eventually to western Europe, South America, and Australia.

Dugas was blamed after a typo in a 1984 study on homosexual men with AIDS, which referred to him as “Patient O” (so called because he lived outside of Canada), resulted in him being called “Patient 0”, a term now often used to mean the first sufferer in an outbreak.

Co-author of the study and Cambridge University historian Richard McKay emphasised the dangers of trying to pinpoint the first case of a disease: “One of the dangers of focus on a single patient zero when discussing the early stages of an epidemic is that we risk obscuring important structural factors that might contribute to its development – poverty, legal and cultural inequalities, barriers to healthcare and education.”

AIDS had killed over 20,000 Americans by 1990, including many gay men, who are the group most affected by the virus in the US. Dugas died of AIDS-related infections in 1984, aged 31.

McKay said: “Gaëtan Dugas is one of the most demonised patients in history, and one of a long line of individuals and groups vilified in the belief that they somehow fuelled epidemics with malicious intent.”

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