Killing Patient Zero

Patient Zero: the man who brought AIDS to North America, sparking the gay plague epidemic, killing several hundred thousand gay men. His name was Gaetan Dugas – a French Canadian flight attendant for Air Canada. His name was published, his lifestyle vilified, his family shamed.

Except it turns out Patient Zero didn’t really exist, and even if he did, he wasn’t Gaetan Dugas.

When the CDC was frantically trying to crack this strange and terrifying disease, they interviewed a bright young flight attendant who was quite forthcoming. They greedily drank up every piece of information he offered. Ultimately, Gaetan’s extensive recollections helped them piece together a cluster chart that helped them identify the sexually transmitted nature of the disease. He was labelled patient O – O as in Out of California (which is where the first 56 men they interviewed had lived; Gaetan was the 57th, and he did not). But that O would later be mistaken for a 0 and that erroneous 0 would be interpreted as meaning the beginning, the originator, the first case of AIDS in North America. Obviously that was 100% factually incorrect, but a reporter who seethed at the government’s lack of response decided to galvanize the world with a book. In it, he constructed the Patient Zero narrative, which guaranteed that the book would be published, read, talked about, regardless of whether it was completely or even remotely true.

Killing Patient Zero is about correcting this notion and rescuing Gaetan’s name, a man who history has wrongfully accused. Director Laurie Lynd interviews many: friends and coworkers, leaders at the forefront of gay civil rights and AIDS advocacy, doctors and researchers and sociologists. Together they weave a portrait of a man joyfully enjoying his life. One man among many who are enjoying newfound freedoms, exploring possibilities, exploiting opportunities, embracing life. AIDS happened just as the world was opening up to gay men. Some called it the ultimate punishment for a sinful life. Gay men lived in terror, but terror of the unknown, because AIDS proved elusive, hard to define, impossible to treat, easy to contract, but by what means? No one could say.

Gaetan too would have lived with that fear. And when the telltale purple splotched appeared, he knew he would soon die. Still, he took the time to talk to the authorities and tell them what he knew. He did more than most.

Killing Patient Zero is as enlightening as it is profound. It’s an important historical record, one that honours not just Gaetan’s memory, but all of those who witnessed a vital community’s near-extinction and did something about it.

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7 thoughts on “Killing Patient Zero

  1. selizabryangmailcom

    I remember when that rumor started circulating about the “male flight attendant” who had spread AIDS around. I’m glad this documentary was made. Although the whole AIDS thing is still a mystery, isn’t it? Where did it come from, really? Was it *created*? Who was it aimed at?

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Craig White

    I’ve just seen this at Hot Docs, and you’ve done an excellent job summarizing it. Very well put together film.

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