The ASBH 9th Annual Meeting (October 18-21, 2007) of ASBH

Friday, 19 October 2007 - 8:40 AM

A Reexamination of Patient O, Patient Zero, and Gaetan Dugas: The Man Who Brought AIDS to North America

Nels P. Highberg, PhD, University of Hartford, West Hartford, CT, USA

There is probably no one who has fought longer or harder for increased knowledge about and discussion of HIV/AIDS than Larry Kramer, a co-founder of both ACT-UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis. In October 2006, Kramer wrote an essay for _The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide_ where he argued for a "formalized and honest process to establish the facts of the history of this plague." HIV/AIDS certainly affects diverse populations. Kramer contends, however, that the initial impact of this syndrome on gay men paired with extensive homophobia in so many facets of society led directly to the pandemic we face today. Subsequently, Kramer insists, "Without such official documentation, the politics of homo-hating and bigotry will continue to rule the world and this plague will never end." This presentation returns to one of the central figures who became a target of scapegoating and misrepresentation: Gaetan Dugas, the man journalist Randy Shilts says "brought AIDS to North America."

Shilts' representation of Dugas in _And the Band Played On_ continues to be the one most remembered even twenty years after the book's publication. However, it is not the only representation to exist. This presentation reexamines the history of representing Dugas to develop a stronger understanding of the relationship of homophobia to the continued spread of HIV/AIDS. This presentation is divided into three parts, each taking approximately five minutes to cover. Part one centers on the first representations of Dugas. He was called Patient O in an article written by Drs. William Darrow and David Auerbach for the _American Journal of Medicine_, a somewhat infamous study that placed Dugas at the center of the spread of HIV among a cluster of gay men. In 1987, Dr. Andrew Ross detailed the methodological flaws in the earlier study in the _American Journal of Epidemiology_; Darrow agreed with Ross' findings and retracted his earlier study.

However, the damage was already done, and Dugas became the "one" to blame for this disease. Shilts' book not only fueled the fire but created an inferno, which this presentation covers in part two, focusing especially on the advertising for this book that appeared in national newspapers such as the _New York Times_. These ads focused exclusively on Dugas, saying that "one single man" spread HIV across the country. The effect was obvious when _People_ magazine listed Dugas as one of the most intriguing people of 1987. Part three of this presentation focuses on the 1993 film _Zero Patience_, which rewrites the Patient Zero story to show that it is not as simple as it initially seems. Though the film won awards in Canada, where it was produced, it has remained largely ignored in the United States. Dugas remains a central figure in the history of AIDS but not because he spread HIV indiscriminately. The effects of his representations remain and must be acknowledged today not just because of the continued impact of HIV/AIDS on the world but to ensure that scapegoating in any form does not happen again.


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