An early PLWHA: the man behind the Patient Zero mask in the North American AIDS Epidemic

Published: August 1, 2008

An early PLWHA: the man behind the ´Patient Zero´ mask in the North American AIDS Epidemic

Issues: The story of a promiscuous, gay, French-Canadian flight attendant bringing AIDS to the United States and becoming ‘Patient Zero’ of that country’s epidemic is a commonly related anecdote. The majority of the literature dealing with this figure follows the lead of Randy Shilts, the San Francisco journalist whose best-selling And the Band Played On (New York, 1987) portrayed Gaétan Dugas, the flight attendant in question, as a cold-blooded, recalcitrant disease disseminator. Despite the significant media attention given to this story, little mention has been made of Dugas’s experience as an early person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Indeed, most media reports focused almost entirely on the dangers that Dugas, a foreigner, posed to the American public health through his sexual encounters with American gay men.

Description: This presentation makes use of new evidence to offer a more sympathetic analysis of one of North America’s most notorious, but least understood PLWHAS. It reads Shilts’s interview notes against the grain to suggest that Dugas wrestled with his diagnosis at a time of considerable medical uncertainty. It incorporates evidence from interviews with physicians and Dugas’s acquaintances in the gay community to outline how Dugas dealt with deteriorating health, discrimination relating to his Kaposi’s sarcoma, and preparations for an early death. The presentation also draws upon French-language news sources from Quebec to demonstrate the stigma and shock endured by Dugas’s family members when they found out, three years after his death, that their son and brother was being blamed for triggering the North American AIDS epidemic.

Lessons learned: Highlighting Dugas’s experience as an early PLWHA, instead of his more publicized role as a human ‘disease vector’, offers useful information about HIV/AIDS-related stigma and social exclusion.

Next steps: Further research into the varied interpretations of the figure of ´Patient Zero´ may offer insight into social responses to emerging epidemics

-Full abstract available at link below-

Leave a Reply