The term “patient zero” has become a buzzword over the past several years.
Most recently, it received renewed scrutiny after 980 contributors and staff The New York Times sent a letter to management, characterizing the paper’s coverage of transgender people as hostile. Chief among their complaints was staff writer Emily Bazelon’s use of the term in her article about the ongoing debate over gender therapy among doctors trying to figure out the best course of treatment for trans-identifying patients, especially those who are minors “Essay by Emily Bazelon… “The term ‘patient zero’ is uncritically used to refer to a trans child seeking gender—affirmative care, a phrase that denigrates transness as a disease to be feared,” the contributors wrote. That charge misses the mark and highlights the dangers of policing language.
“Patient zero” can refer to the first person in a given population infected with the virus, the first person in a medical study, or the first person to receive a particular type of treatment. It is sometimes used to refer to tangible objects such as computers or people at the center of a new trend.
in it The New York Times In the story, Bazelon uses the term to refer to a teenager who was the first to receive a revolutionary new treatment in the 1980s at a gender clinic in Amsterdam. “Patient Zero, known as FG, was referred to Henriette A. Delemare-Van de Waal, a pediatrician, around 1987,” Bazelon wrote. “At age 13, FG was depressed about going through female puberty, and Delemare-van de Waal put her on anti-puberty medication.”
Objecting to the word, D times Contributors cite a story about its origin. The label was first associated with Gaytan Dugas, an AIDS patient who was mistakenly believed to have ignited the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States with this match. In documentation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dugas was named “Patient O,” for “outside of California.” This was later misread as “patient 0,” or “patient zero.” That misreading, when paired with Dugas’ promiscuous behavior—she told a CDC investigator that she slept with hundreds of men each year—left some misreading that she was responsible for starting the crisis, a claim popularized in Randy Shilts’ 1987 book. And the band played on.
In other words, the term “patient zero” comes from a dark place. But it has since evolved into something much more complex and developed additional, abstract meanings, as language tends to do. Bazelon used the term to refer to the first person who received treatment—not to spread a disease. Especially important is that the patient is described as happy with the treatment and the results.
What’s more, it seems that Bazelon probably got the term from the Dutch historian, Alex Becker, a transgender man who has written on the subject for many years.
Bakker was quoted in Bazelon’s article. In his book, The Dutch approach, he talks to FG in the book, he refers to FG with a familiar term. “So ‘patient zero’ was carefully tested for its efficacy ten years later,” writes Bakker.
As a transgender man who also writes about his own experiences, Baker is a sympathetic historian. Reached via email immediately after publication The New York Times Letters, he says because: “The term ‘patient zero’ as ‘a phrase that vilifies transness as a disease to be feared’ seems to me a rhetorical choice, not an established fact.”
“I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder but I don’t agree with it at all,” he continued. “To me, that’s a neutral word you can use to describe this particular piece of medical history. It’s not to describe FG as a person, it’s to describe the development of puberty blockers.”
There is no reason to think times The letter writers were aware of this backstory, but as journalists (and as Bazelon’s colleagues) they could have probed. Regardless, wordsmiths should know that words are complex. Word twisting is a popular method of attacking the culture war, but it’s a losing game.
“It’s not the least bit inconsistent with using the word patient zero, not with me, not with my audience… not with FG himself,” Backer said. “My response to critics of the term ‘patient zero’ would be: don’t read into it, don’t take it out of context and focus on the real issues here, the real threat to transphobia and trans human rights. Underestimation.”
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