Aids blamed on ‘Patient Zero’ man for decades because of horrifying typo

Gaetan Dugas has been described as ‘one of the most demonised patients in history’ – but it has finally been proven that he was just one of the disease’s many victims

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 27 October 2016 10:21
Gaetan Dugas came to be known as ‘Patient Zero’ all because of a paperwork error
Gaetan Dugas came to be known as ‘Patient Zero’ all because of a paperwork error

The man blamed for decades for bringing the Aids epidemic to the US was despised by many – and all because of a typo, new research has shown.

Scientists exploring the spread of the disease have found that Gaetan Dugas, for decades seen as one of the most villainous people in medical history, was only patient zero because of a paperwork mistake. But the finding comes long after Mr Dugas’s death, after he passed away from complications related to the disease in 1984.

The blame of Mr Dugas all relates to one small typo in a paper by the US Centres for Disease Control. That typo made him appear to be the first person to have the disease, and the person who brought it to the US where it would infect over a million people and have lasting cultural impact

The mistake made Mr Dugas into “Patient Zero”. But that zero wasn’t a number at all – in fact it was the letter O, and that meant very little.

“Dugas is one of the most demonised patients in history,” said Richard McKay, a public health historian and one of the new study's two lead authors.

In 1982 when investigators were looking into a rare, lethal lung infection that appeared to be linked to sexual relations, they began to interview patients. They spoke to people affected by the disease and looked around to try and find where the infection had begun.

One of the names that came up was Gaetan Dugas, who as part of the investigation – and in line with everyone else – was assigned a number: 057. And he was given a letter in their notes: an O that was meant to show that he was “Outside-of-California”, because he was from New York and not Los Angeles.

But soon researchers “began interpreting the ambiguous oval as a digit, and referring to ‘Patient O’ as ‘Patient 0’ (zero),” said McKay.

Other coincidences helped to enforce the idea that Mr Dugas was responsible for the outbreak. The fact that he could remember 72 of the 750 men he had been with meant that he formed a large part of the investigation, and his unusual name made him harder to forget.

HIV in numbers

That meant that he was a noticeable part of a diagram that looked at how the east and west coast outbreaks of what would become known as Aids joined up. And that same name was stumbled on by a journalist who made him the central villain of the influential book “And the Band Played On”, which lay the responsibility for thousands of deaths on Mr Dugas.

Scientists long knew that the unfortunate French-Canadian man wasn’t the originator of the disease. But they didn’t have the biological evidence to prove it – and so it was new work that explored the genetic material of the virus to finally prove that the disease had arrived on US soil long before it got to Mr Dugas.

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