Man accused of 700,000 deaths because of a typo
Gaëtan Dugas was everyone’s friend. Handsome, funny, full of life. Those who knew the Canadian said he was convinced one day he would become a star.
Dugas’ name became so synonymous with the epidemic, one friend said some people imagined him to be “eight-foot-tall, dripping blood”.
He was flamboyant; refused to hide his sexuality and made no apologies about his sex life, sleeping with as many as 250 men a year.
Dugas was condemned because of a bizarre combination of factors. The most inexplicable of which was due to a simple typo, an innocuous mix-up between a number and a letter.
Dugas was wrongly identified as ‘patient zero’ during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US.
In the documentary, Dugas is remembered by friends and colleague as being “charming”, “lots of fun” and “an outrageous gay guy” who didn’t give a stuff what other people thought of his life.
Lynd said it was easy to be judgmental, but homosexuality was only gradually being decriminalised in the US. It had just been struck off a list of mental disorders and no one knew AIDS even existed.
Doctors first began to notice clusters of gay men falling ill with a “gay cancer” in California and New York in 1981. The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) interviewed some of those men to see if they could work out what was happening.
His willingness to help the researchers, unlike many other gay men who were suspicious of the authorities, helped build a picture of how HIV was spreading.
And there his story may have ended but for US journalist Randy Shilts.
The media erupted: Dugas’ face was everywhere — this patient zero who was the ground zero of the crisis. He was characterised as a kind of “typhoid Mary” callously spreading the virus.
The CDC’s original research, released several years previously, included information from Dugas. But, like others, he was identified only as an unnamed “patient” followed by a number or letter or combination of both.
“C’mon Darrow, you’re the one that told us about him,” came the reply.
“The consequence of misreading an O as a zero can’t be underestimated.
It’s now thought the first US death from AIDS could have been back in 1969.
“Unfortunately, it’s human nature that we need someone to blame.
Laurie Lynd said he hoped Dugas’ reputation could be rebuilt. Picture: Killing Patient Zero.
ACON (AIDS Council of NSW) chief executive officer Nicholas Parkhill told news.com.au discrimination and fear was also rife in the early days of the epidemic in Australia despite the government here being more proactive leading to far fewer infections.
“Still, after 35 years, stigma and discrimination for people with HIV remain.”
Mr Lynd said he hoped Dugas’ reputation should be restored.Read more: news.com.au
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