Activists React to New HIV Study, Debunking of ‘Patient Zero’ Myth

The leading HIV and AIDS organizations across the country are reacting to a study published Wednesday that found HIV entered the United States long before the disease was officially recognized in the early 1980s.

FILE: A laboratory technician examines blood samples for HIV/AIDS Eliseo Fernandez / Reuters, file

The study, done by a group of researchers at the University of Arizona and published in the journal Nature, found the virus entered the United States through New York City and from the Caribbean some time around 1970 or 1971, before moving on to San Francisco in 1976.

“We tend to think of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. beginning in 1981, when the first cases were described,” the Foundation for AIDS Research, commonly known as amfAR, said in a statement provided to NBC OUT. “But it’s long been known that the virus was circulating many years before that. This new report is the result of some dogged and exceptional research and it adds important new knowledge to the history of the epidemic.”

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John Peller, President of AIDS Foundation of Chicago, said the study “demonstrates further how deadly HIV can be without regular testing for people at highest risk, and the damage it can do to a whole population over time. Sadly, we’re still seeing some of these same problems today.”

Peller said that in Illinois, one in six people with HIV still don’t know that they are infected, and about one in four people with HIV are diagnosed very late, suggesting many people may live with the virus for over a decade before receiving treatment.

“The U.S. needs continued financial investment in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy to address these challenges,” Peller said.

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Kelsey Louie, CEO of New York-based Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which formed in 1982 as the virus began ravage on the gay community, emphasized another key finding from the study:

“The strain of HIV responsible for almost all AIDS cases came to New York City around 1971, debunking the myth of ‘Patient Zero,’” he said. “Society, and in particular the media, were all too eager to cast blame on a single person, rather than reflect on the stigma they were creating and the lack of political will to actually do something about the disease.”

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Indeed, the study debunks the long held misbelief that French-Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas, who died of AIDS in 1984 and is often referred to as "Patient zero," was the first to bring the virus to the United States and therefore the source of the disease.

According to the study, “While [Dugas] did link AIDS cases in New York and Los Angeles through sexual contact, our results refute the widespread misinterpretation that he also infected them with HIV-1.”

In fact, the study credits Dugas for donating blood for analysis at the time and providing the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) with a list of nearly 10 percent of his sexual partners over several years. Dugas was part of a cluster of gay men with AIDS that were linked through sexual contact and studied by the CDC, helping to suggest HIV was sexually transmitted.

Ronald Johnson, Vice President of Policy at AIDS United in Washington D.C., said the idea of there being a "Patient Zero" created a stigma for gay men that still exists today.

“This study dispels a longstanding myth that a single gay man was singularly responsible for a national epidemic,” Johnson said. “This myth continues to fuel HIV-related stigma for gay men to this day.”

amfAR is also expressed relief the myth can finally be put to rest: “Our hearts go out to the family of Gaetan Dugas, who has finally been exonerated after being vilified for 30 years as 'Patient Zero'—the person responsible for spreading HIV across the U.S. and around the world.”

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