Patient Zero myth creates hysteria and harms victims

Alyssa Fernandez

Gaetan Dugas was a gay flight attendant that was featured in a landmark 1984 CDC study that tracked the transmission of HIV/AIDS into the United States. In that same study he was listed as “Patient O,” where the O stood for “outside-of-California.” Yet some individuals mistook that O as a zero — accidentally creating the moniker of Patient Zero. This linguistic error resulted in a myth that falsely named Dugas as the Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic, suggesting that he was the initial case to bring this disease into the Americas.

However, in late October Dugas’ name was cleared as the Patient Zero for the AIDS epidemic — but this does not make up for decades of character assassination. 

According to a CNN article, pathobiological sciences associate professor Thomas Friedrich describes how a Patient Zero can be misinterpreted by the public. “Identifying one person as the Patient Zero, on the one hand may give an incorrect impression about how the disease emerges in the first place and, on the other hand, insinuate that somebody should be blamed for this outbreak, when that’s not really appropriate,” Friedrich said.

At the end of the day, a Patient Zero is an excuse to scapegoat not only an individual such as Dugas, but to stigmatize a whole community and their actions. 

Journalist Randy Shilts popularized the Patient Zero myth in his 1987 book “And the Band Played On,” which painted Dugas as a sexual deviant with a plethora of homosexual partners. While Shilts was able to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic at a time when it was still shrouded in mystery to the public, he also demonized the gay community with Dugas as the primary target.   

To mainstream America that already had their own prejudices and misconceptions about the gay community, AIDS was not just a virus, but an excuse to socially isolate and dehumanize them. When you add the fictionalized Dugas that fulfills certain stereotypes alongside the fact that AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, the Patient Zero becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that suggests maybe the gays deserved to have “God’s punishment” inflicted onto them. 

While Patient Zero is beneficial to the scientific community to study the outbreak of diseases, the public uses it irresponsibly to support their own prejudices. The real injustice is that we allow these scapegoat narratives to happen. The solution is to promote advocates of a disease and not a scapegoat.

In 1984, the same year the Patient Zero study was published and when Gaetan Dugas died, Ryan White was a 13 year-old hemophiliac who was diagnosed with AIDS. Because of the stigma and lack of knowledge surrounding AIDS at the time, White was not permitted to attend school due to fears he would infect his classmates. He became the poster-child for AIDS in the ’80s, helping destigmatize the disease and pass AIDS-related legislation. 

The primary difference in how Gaetan Dugas and Ryan White’s stories are told is that White’s used unified language. It helped bring down the hysteria surrounding AIDS and all the other things associated with it, whereas the Patient Zero character only segregated the population and turned the AIDS epidemic into an us-versus-them battleground. 

Ultimately, the most important lesson in the Patient Zero myth is to recognize the divisive nature of its language, when what is really necessary is to unite and work together. This lesson extends far beyond Dugas and AIDS, especially now in the climate after the election. With mystery comes fear although the future might seem bleak, we must become advocates for our country and without scapegoating certain groups of people. It’s a volatile time and we have the opportunity to ease the current tensions into a positive outlook.

Fernandez is a rhetoric and writing and Spanish senior from Allen. She is a senior columnist.