Though the flight attendant accused of bringing HIV to the US has long since died, he’s being vindicated by modern gene science. In the 1987 book, “And the Band Played On,” Gaetan Dugas, was said to have spread HIV to the gay bath houses of San Francisco and Los Angeles, sparking the AIDS epidemic. Over the years several scientists have contested this theory and a new study presents evidence the epidemic actually began a decade earlier in the 1970s in New York City.
What researchers did was examine the blood samples stored from HIV gay and bisexual men in the late 1970s in San Francisco and New York.Then they sequenced the HIV genomes to create a family tree that allowed scientists to see how the viruses were related and when each split occurred. Since HIV mutates, variations of the virus are found in infected individuals.
Not only did the study reveal that HIV began in New York City in 1970, the one that was brought to the US genetically resembles older HIV variants from Haiti and other Caribbean countries. It also suggests that HIV reached San Francisco in 1975. Although Dugas did visit Haiti in 1977, he does not appear to be the person who started the US epidemic. In fact the virus he carried fell in the middle of the family tree, not at the beginning.
He also couldn’t have known he infected his sexual partners because scientists didn’t confirm the method of transmission until one year before Dugas’ death. That’s important since he was vilified in the press for infecting a multitude of partners. To his credit, Dugas provided doctors the names of 72 sexual partners so they could be contacted and given the care they would have needed to perhaps delay the onset of AIDS. Once again we can credit genome sequence technology for solving another origin mystery.
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‘Patient Zero’ no more
Science 04 Mar 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6277, pp. 1013 DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6277.1013
A Timeline of HIV/AIDS
AIDS.gov originally posted this timeline in 2011 to highlight milestones of the 30th anniversary of the first reports of what became known as AIDS.
Updated with entries through 2016, the timeline reflects the history of the domestic epidemic from its origins in illness, fear, and death to our present, hope-filled years.
The Absence of a Patient’s View of the Early North American AIDS Epidemic
This article contextualizes the production and reception of And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’s popular history of the initial recognition of the American AIDS epidemic.