In the '80s, they called Gaetan Dugas the patient zero of HIV/AIDS. Except he wasn't.

U.S. doctors first noticed the disease that would come to be known as HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s.

The story starts with a group of doctors, who noticed an outbreak of a rare skin cancer called Kaposi sarcoma in young gay men in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. We now know that Kaposi sarcoma is linked to HIV/AIDS, but at the time, those doctors didn't know what was causing the rare form cancer.

CDC researchers, suspecting that whatever was causing this disease was sexually transmitted, started asking patients to name their partners. And, through this work, the researchers started to build out a map of cases.


That's where a man named Gaetan Dugas comes in.

Photo from Anonymous/Assoicated Press.

Dugas was a Canadian flight attendant, and he was named by several of the patients as one of their sexual partners. Soon enough, the scientists started talking to him. It turned out he was sick too.

Dugas' case started the phrase "patient zero," which you may have heard of. But the term — and its tie to Dugas — was more or less an accident.

Dugas did end up near the center of their map, which some people took to mean that he was the original source of this new and rare infection in the United States. But the scientists didn't mean to imply that.

A re-creation of the 1984 "map" of infections. Dugas' spot is highlighted in red. Image from Niamh O'C/Wikimedia Commons.

Even the term, "patient zero" was an accident. Dugas was originally anonymized as Patient O, for "out(side)-of-California." It was only later, in a misunderstanding, that Dugas became "patient zero."

Dugas was originally anonymous, but once the media learned who he was, they turned him into the great HIV/AIDs villain.

Dugas' name first appeared in the book "And the Band Played On," by Randy Shilts. And the media, once they got wind of who he was, painted Dugas as some sort of purposefully malicious villain — the man who "brought" HIV/AIDS to the U.S.

"Gaetan Dugas is one of the most demonised patients in history, and one of a long line of individuals and groups vilified in the belief that they somehow fueled epidemics with malicious intent," said Cambridge's Richard McKay in a statement.

But not everyone believed this was true, so scientists investigated. And they may have just cleared his name.

There have been previous suggestions that Dugas did not deserve the dubious moniker of "patient zero," but now a team, including McKay and led by Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, may have definitive evidence that Dugas was not the original carrier of HIV.

To do this, the scientists got a hold of old blood samples containing the virus from Dugas and eight other patients. They then used sophisticated genetic techniques to sequence each HIV infection's genome, effectively building a kind of family tree of the virus.

If Dugas was really the first infectee (or what scientists more properly call the "index case"), his sample should have been at the root of the tree. But that wasn't the case. Instead, their research suggests that the disease actually entered the United States from the Caribbean sometime in the 1970s. It turned out he was simply another patient with a really tough disease.

This study will help us better understand how HIV/AIDS entered the United States. But it also shows why the idea of a patient zero can be so problematic.

We often want someone to blame when big things go wrong — a scapegoat makes things a lot easier. The idea of a patient zero provides an all-too-easy target.

"Blaming 'others' — whether the foreign, the poor, or the wicked — has often served to establish a notional safe distance between the majority and groups or individuals identified as threats," said McKay. And Dugas, an unashamed gay foreigner in the 1980s, was, to many in America, one of the "others."

Though we have a much better grasp on HIV/AIDS today than we did in the 1980s, we continue to see this vilification with other diseases.

Take the stigma the family of Emile Ouamouno, the 2-year-old patient zero of the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic, has had to live through.

An aid workers sets up beds in Liberia in 2014. Photo by Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

Scientifically, this vilification can be problematic as well. Identifying the origin of a disease is an important step in understanding how it spreads, but solely focusing on that can obscure other, larger contributing factors that contribute to how a disease spreads, such as unequal access to health care, said McKay in The Guardian.

In the end, the idea of a patient zero can also eclipse the human cost.

Rather, we can get so wrapped up in our obsession with blaming a patient zero, that we can lose sight of the very human cost of the disease itself, which often plays out right in front of us.

"It is important to remember that, in the 1970s, as now, the epidemic was driven by individuals going about their lives unaware they were contracting, and sometimes transmitting, a deadly infection," said McKay.

The early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were a terrible, dark time for everyone who lived through them, and reducing that story to blaming just one man is a grave mistake. McKay said they hope this research will give people pause before using the phrase again.

Dugas died in 1984 of AIDS-related complications.

True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

Keep Reading Show less
Images via Canva and Unsplash

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that being in a pandemic sucks.

However, we seem to be on different pages as to what sucks most about it. Many of us are struggling with being separated from our friends and loved ones for so long. Some of us have lost friends and family to the virus, while others are dealing with ongoing health effects of their own illness. Millions are struggling with job loss and financial stress due to businesses being closed. Parents are drowning, dealing with their kids' online schooling and lack of in-person social interactions on top of their own work logistics. Most of us hate wearing masks (even if we do so diligently), and the vast majority of us are just tired of having to think about and deal with everything the pandemic entails.

Much has been made of the mental health impact of the pandemic, which is a good thing. We need to have more open conversations about mental health in general, and with everything so upside down, it's more important now than ever. However, it feels like pandemic mental health conversations have been dominated by people who want to justify anti-lockdown arguments. "We can't let the cure be worse than the disease," people say. Kids' mental health is cited as a reason to open schools, the mental health challenges of financial despair as a reason to keep businesses open, and the mental health impact of social isolation as a reason to ditch social distancing measures.

It's not that those mental health challenges aren't real. They most definitely are. But when we focus exclusively on the mental health impact of lockdowns, we miss the fact that there are also significant mental health struggles on the other side of those arguments.

Keep Reading Show less
True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

Keep Reading Show less

A vintage post-card collector on Flickr who goes by the username Post Man has kindly allowed us to share his wonderful collection of vintage postcards and erotica from the turn of the century. This album is full of exquisite photographs from around the world of a variety of people dressed in beautiful clothing in exotic settings. In an era well before the internet, these photographs would be one of the only ways you could could see how people in other countries looked and dressed.

Take a look at PostMan's gallery of over 90 vintage postcards on Flickr.

Keep Reading Show less
via Budweiser

Budweiser beer, and its low-calorie counterpart, Bud Light, have created some of the most memorable Super Bowl commercials of the past 37 years.

There were the Clydesdales playing football and the poor lost puppy who found its way home because of the helpful horses. Then there were the funny frogs who repeated the brand name, "Bud," "Weis," "Er."

We can't forget the "Wassup?!" ad that premiered in December 1999, spawning the most obnoxious catchphrase of the new millennium.

Keep Reading Show less