STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some news here - today researchers are clearing the name of a man widely blamed for starting the AIDS epidemic in the United States. His name was Gaetan Dugas. That's a famous name for anybody who learns the story of AIDS. He was a Canadian flight attendant, charismatic - and promiscuous.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AND THE BAND PLAYED ON")
JEFFREY NORDLING: (As Gaetan Dugas) We're talking about thousands of men all over the world, whose faces I cannot even remember. And you want names (laughter).
INSKEEP: That's the actor Jeffrey Nordling as Dugas in a movie about the epidemic called "And The Band Played On."
More than 30 years after his death, a new study proves that Dugas was not the person who should be identified as patient zero. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: This story is about a misunderstanding, a mix-up that had terrible consequences. Back in 1981, William Darrow was a young scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he was given the assignment of a lifetime, to figure out why gay men in Los Angeles were dying. Scientists had no idea. Was it related to drugs? Then, Darrow heard a rumor - some of these men were lovers.
WILLIAM DARROW: Whoa. This was the first indication that we heard that the disease might have been sexually transmitted from one person to another.
DOUCLEFF: So Darrow started interviewing these men about their sex lives. One man kept popping up again and again.
DARROW: This flight attendant from Canada who flew for Air Canada. Gee, he was such a great guy, very handsome.
DOUCLEFF: Gaetan Dugas. Eventually, he was linked sexually to eight early AIDS cases. Darrow says he was super helpful and willingly provided CDC with his contacts. When Darrow wrote up his findings, he called the men by a code based on their addresses. For those in LA...
DARROW: There's LA1, LA2 and so forth - LA7, LA9.
DOUCLEFF: And for Dugas, a Canadian...
DARROW: Patient O, the out-of-California case, outside of California.
DOUCLEFF: The letter O. Darrow published the landmark study in March 1984, showing AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease. That same month, Dugas died of an AIDS-related illness. And then...
PHIL TIEMEYER: Three years later, in October of '87, he sort of comes back to life.
DOUCLEFF: That's Phil Tiemeyer. He studies LGBT history at Kansas State University. I talked to him on Skype. Tiemeyer means Dugas comes back to life in the book, "And The Band Played On" by Randy Shilts, a reporter in San Francisco. The book became a best-seller. It offered incredible details about the AIDS epidemic, including the story of Dugas.
TIEMEYER: This is where Gaetan is sort of resurrected as a fictitional (ph) character whose role in the AIDS crisis is way more overblown than anything that the scientists at the CDC would have been willing to attribute to this man.
DOUCLEFF: In the book, Shilts repeatedly calls Dugas patient zero. And this gets to the heart of the misunderstanding. You see, before Darrow published his original study, someone at the CDC misread the label O, which stood for outside California and changed it to a zero. Here's Darrow.
DARROW: That's correct. It was never meant to suggest that he was the first case.
DOUCLEFF: Did you have evidence that he was the first?
DARROW: No. No, we never did.
DOUCLEFF: But with the book, Shilts takes the mix-up in the paper to a whole new level. He said Dugas, quote, "played a key role in spreading AIDS across the country." And he suggested Dugas brought the virus to North America. Shilts died of complications from AIDS in 1994. His editor and publisher did not respond to NPR's request for comment on Shilts' portrayal of Dugas. The media, Tiemeyer says, took the idea of patient zero and ran with it.
TIEMEYER: The New York Post runs a front-page story with huge headlines, "The Man Who Gave Us AIDS."
DOUCLEFF: Time magazine prints a story called "The Appalling Saga Of Patient Zero." And "60 Minutes" airs a feature. From that point, Gaetan Dugas was lodged in the popular consciousness as patient zero.
TIEMEYER: This character has every trait of a villain that America is looking for in the AIDS crisis. He's gay and unashamed about it. He's beautiful. He's the perfect villain.
DOUCLEFF: But Dugas wasn't a villain at all. And now scientists at the University of Arizona have finally proved it, clearing Dugas' name in this week's issue of Nature. Michael Worobey analyzed blood samples taken from gay men in the late '70s, along with one from Gaetan Dugas. A huge conclusion popped out. HIV most likely came to the U.S. from Haiti a decade before doctors started seeing this serious disease.
MICHAEL WOROBEY: What we do know is it got to New York City pretty darn early, probably around 1970, 1971, somewhere in there.
DOUCLEFF: By 1980, HIV was widespread in New York City. And Dugas had a newer strain of the virus. He couldn't possibly be patient zero. Worobey says he wasn't even close.
WOROBEY: He was just one of many, many people - probably many thousands of people, who had already been infected for many years with a horrible pathogen.
DOUCLEFF: In fact, those who knew him remember him being a really good guy. Not only did Dugas help scientists figure out what AIDS was but right before he died, Dugas volunteered at a nonprofit to help other people with HIV.
Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
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