UA research team disproves 'Patient Zero' spread of HIV/AIDS in U.S.

UA research team disproves 'Patient Zero' spread of HIV/AIDS in U.S.

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Scientific research has taken a shot at stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, thanks to years of sampling, testing and researching in a University of Arizona lab.

The results from a team led by Dr. Michael Worobey disprove a long-held belief that a Canadian airline attendant was the 'Patient Zero' responsible for what would become the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the early 80s in the United States.

Worobey said the team's work shows that it is "silly" to believe a single person or even a group of people could be to blame for the spread of an infectious disease. HIV was already in the U.S., undetected, for years by the time news stories and medical reports appeared in the early 80s, according to Worobey.

His team used decades-old samples of blood from men diagnosed with HIV to study how the virus spread and mutated. Worobey said it takes multiple samples to understand where each one fits into the timeline of HIV before, during and after it entered the U.S.

"It's kind of like Hansel and Gretel leaving the trail of breadcrumbs," he said. "The virus accumulates changes over time and when you compare a bunch of them, those changes tell you a story about when and how the pandemic arose."

Scott Blades, Executive Director of Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, said the results should put a stop to the stigma that has followed the virus since it was first reported.

"Many people have used it to blame other people, whether it's blaming the gay community, whether it's blaming patient zero, whether it's blaming whoever," said Blades. "This reminds people that HIV is a medical issue. It is a virus that doesn't know or care who you are."

Mark Rosenbaum was diagnosed with HIV in 1983. He said he didn't expect to live past the year 2000. His hope for the research is that it will bring public attention back to HIV/AIDS.

"Folks have put HIV, you know, in the back of their mind," said Rosenbaum. "We don't talk about it as much anymore. It's not the crisis that it was."

There are almost 17,000 people living with the virus in Arizona, according to the latest numbers from the state Department of Health Services. Blades said he estimates close to 3,000 of those cases are in Pima County.

The research by Worobey and his team didn't just map the history of HIV. He said their method can be shared with other research teams in an effort to track other infectious diseases like Ebola or Zika.

Worobey said everything they've learned from this research can help further the prevention of HIV's spread.

"Those lessons are pretty important for looking forward," he said. "Now, what do you need to do to actually drive HIV into extinction."

The next round of testing in the lab is already underway, according to Worobey. He said it's too soon to disclose any results, but he and his team are hard at work.
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