Patient Zero is such a dynamic, catchy term. Patient Zero is the cause, the source of our ills, the one who started the epidemic, right?
He’s the French Canadian flight attendant who spread the AIDS virus so efficiently in the 1980s. I remember reading about him in And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts. Great book.
According to Wikipedia, Patient Zero is “the index case or initial patient in the population of an epidemiological investigation.” So any dramatic epidemic or pandemic must have a Patient Zero. It makes for great plots in fiction: the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, the selfish bozo who slips out of the quarantine to infect the nearby town, the astronaut returning from space with an undetected biohazard …
Real life is much messier.
As it turns out, the flight attendant was not the sole cause of AIDS. According to a New York Times article that outlines recent medical detective work, AIDS had been present in New York for a few years before the flight attendant jumped into the playground.
Here’s the article: “H.I.V. Arrived in the U.S. Long Before Patient Zero.”
How odd that the NYT capitalizes most words, even “Before,” and other newspapers do not. But I digress.
The term Patient Zero, which seems so cutting edge and thrillerish, is actually a mistake in this case. The flight attendant was designated Patient O (the letter), shorthand for “outside of California,” because the study in which the man was interviewed began in California, and all the other patients were designated by area (city, county).
And since this is the case and this is the book that introduced the term Patient Zero into the lexicon, it’s ironic that the resulting cultural theme or trope, whatever you want to call it, is based on a misreading.
If you’ve read Shilts’ book, you’ll recognize some of the facts, or supposed facts, in this article, as well as some names. Doctors in the 1980s were just learning about AIDS and didn’t know that the disease was actually widespread in Africa or had been present in NYC for a while. They assumed, since gay men were dying in large numbers so very quickly, that all victims died within a year of infection. Not true at all.
Randy Shilts pulled together a gripping story when he wrote And The Band Played On, driven by what was happening to his friends and community, and eventually to himself. So little was known that it’s no surprise and not to his detriment that he put some of the pieces together wrong. At least he managed to put them together into a coherent narrative, which was needed.
Remember that back then, there were activists who thought all AIDS patients (before and after the term AIDS came into use) should be herded off into concentration camps, children included. People who believed the lives of their own kids would be endangered by contact with kids with AIDS became heartless — or, as they saw it, protective. No one knew how to track it, stop it, or treat it.
Do you recall that the Surgeon General sent a mass mailing to every home in America to try and quell the panic? Every home address in the US. I don’t think anyone has tried that before or since. And I knew a few families who threw it out, convinced that the government was lying to them for some reason, and that nothing that pamphlet said could be believed. There was a right-wing religious component to it all, and more than one preacher made headlines by stating that AIDS was divine punishment for homosexuality, or for tolerating homosexuality (they had to amend the crime as it became clear that heterosexuals were also contracting the disease.)
Glad we’re over that. We are, aren’t we?