After demonizing the image of Canadian flight attendant Gaétan Dugas in the 1980s, a new study reveals that AIDS came to the United States long before Dugas. The research shows that HIV came to the U.S. around 1971.

The Canadian flight attendant arrived years later and now that science has intervened, Gaétan Dugas will no longer be the men that broad over 500,000 deaths to America. A new genetic analysis that evaluated stored blood samples showed that AIDS came to the United States before Mr. Dugas arrival. The paper was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday and was led by Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Dugas, an Air Canada Flight attendant from Quebec City, is a central figure in the history of HIV/AIDS. Image Credit: Vimeo

A team led by Dr. Worobey analyzed blood samples that were collected in 1978 and 1979 in New York and San Francisco. Those samples were not part of an AIDS study but part of an effort to make a hepatitis B vaccines. In total, there were about 16,000 blood samples. The results showed that seven percent of the samples collected in New York, and four percent of the samples gathered in San Francisco had HIV.

To clear the name of Mr. Dugas, Dr. Worobey and his team, sequenced the genomes of the HIV found in some of those samples and compared them with viral DNA from Haitians and Dominicans and other people treated in American hospitals in the early 1980s.

The samples have been stored for a long time and lost some traits, thus, Dr. Worobey used a technique developed in his lab called “RNA jackhammering.” The method is similar to what other scientists use to reconstruct ancient genomes, such as the Neandertal one. Using the technique, Worobey, and his team were able to determine which strain of HIV diverged from its ancestor which let them get to the origin of the disease that began an epidemic in America in the 1980s.

The research results showed that the New York samples all derive from on Haitian strain. The range was so broad that the samples from San Francisco were all closely related to the strain found in the samples in New York. Dr. Worobey said that these new facts suggest that all strain in the U.S. started with a person in New York.

Africa has more than ten HIV groups and the Haiti epidemic came from that continent. AIDS managed to travel from Africa to the United States, claiming over 500,000 only in America.

The mistakes that demonized an innocent man for being the cause of AIDS in the United States

You must keep in mind that when Patient Zero was pointed out, medicine was not as evolved as it is nowadays. When the disease was first identified it was 1981, but the study that defined the symptoms made a mistake.

The initial research on AIDS assumed that most patients developed symptoms within ten months of infections. But today, it is known that people with AIDS can live without any symptoms for years, and that is a chance that those who were involved with Mr. Dugas were already infected with HIV.

Mr. Dugas was a focal point because he kept a diary and a record of how many sexual partners he had had per year. Around eight gay men that had intercourse with the Canadian flight attendant were among the samples that were collected for the early studies about AIDS, and then the disease was associated with Mr. Dugas.

According to Mr. Dugas, he had about 250 sexual partners a year. Other participants in the first study reported having about 227 partners a year that include quick, anonymous encounters in bars. Still, Mr. Dugas sexual relationships stood up because of his diary.

Now that the true is out, Gaétan Dugas is free of guilt, but the damage to his reputation and what he had to deal provoked that people’s fear to get tested for HIV. People are afraid of becoming the Dugas of their country, their city, or their village, regardless the test could save their life.

The beginning of Patient Zero: a vowel that became a number and then ruined Dugas’ reputation

Dr. Harold W. Jaffe, one of the original investigators of the disease back in the 1980s and now the associate director for science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that during the study, Gaétan Dugas was never tagged as Patient Zero, but as Patient O, which meant “patient outside California.”

The true is that a book started the rumors of Patient Zero that later became a fact, until the release of the new study published in Nature. The best-selling work was out on the market in 1987 and was written by a gay San Francisco journalist, Randy Shilts, who died of AIDS in 1994.

Shilt decided to track former boyfriends of men that participated in the first investigations regarding the disease. The journalist was able to link some men to Dugas and revealed the information in his book. Shilt never accused the flight attendant of starting the American epidemic, but he did say that he spread the disease intentionally.

Randy Shilt accused Dugas of deliberately spreading the virus saying that Gaétan Dugas’ doctor warned him to stop having unprotected sex. Shilt also accused the Canadian man of telling some partners that he had “gay cancer” after they had had sexual contact and according to Shilt’s accusations, Dugas told them that they might have the disease because of them.

The San Francisco journalist first heard the term “Patient Zero” in the C.D.C. and thought it was attractive for the audience. But Dr. Jaffe, author of the new report on the origins of AIDS in America said that the term was rarely used in the scientific community until Shilt published his book.

The book is called “And the Band Played On” and was written not for revealing the AIDS’s Patient Zero, but to criticize the slow response of the American government to the epidemic.

Source: Nature