Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Staph Retreat: Reports a "Flesh-Eating," Drug-Resistant Bacterial Infection Spreading among Gay Men Prompted a Media Frenzy, a Gay Backlash, and Finally, an Apology from the Researchers Behind the Study. Tim Murphy Sorts out What Happened-And What You Need to Know about MRSA

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Staph Retreat: Reports a "Flesh-Eating," Drug-Resistant Bacterial Infection Spreading among Gay Men Prompted a Media Frenzy, a Gay Backlash, and Finally, an Apology from the Researchers Behind the Study. Tim Murphy Sorts out What Happened-And What You Need to Know about MRSA

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

IN MID JANUARY researchers in San Francisco and Boston sparked a global press circus when they reported that a virulent, multidrug-resistant form of staph bacteria (specifiCally, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA) was spreading among gay men. According to the report, Bay Area gays were 13 times more likely to be infected than area residents in general. Epidemiologist Binh An Diep, the lead researcher, summed up the findings this way: "Once this reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable."

The world press went wild. A London tabloid called the bug "the new HIV." An Australian paper ran the headline "Flesh-Eating Bug Spreads Among Gays." Right-wing groups piled on: "Gays May Spread Deadly Staph Infection to General Population," blared a missive from Concerned Women for America.

The hysteria echoed homophobic headlines from the early days of AIDS, and gay newspapers and activists quickly struck back, pointing out that MRSA was already widely reported in "the general population" and wasn't transmitted primarily through sex. "I've lost count of how many times I've seen this depressing drill about gay men, our sexuality, diseases, and researchers generating great headlines for their academic careers," wrote activist Michael Petrelis on his blog.

Within days the University of California, San Francisco, researchers apologized. In their revised press release they down-played the role of gay men and removed the hot-button medical term "general population." Researcher Henry Chambers told The Advocate that Diep was a rookie researcher who "was not thinking about the consequences" of his word choices. "He meant that [MRSA] is more prevalent in the gay population," said Chambers, "and that it might become as prevalent in other populations as well."

Now that the kerfuffle is behind us, let's get to the facts. MRSA is not spread just through sex. It appears most commonly in hospital settings and among groups, such as football players or wrestlers, engaging in frequent skin-to-skin contact or contact with shared mats, clothes, towels, razors, and the like. It didn't originate among gays, but doctors who treat gay men in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago say that since 2000 they have seen a marked increase in MRSA, which is resistant to penicillin antibiotics but treatable with other drugs. As for the scary "flesh-eating" moniker, in rare cases, MRSA--which begins with what usually resembles a pimple or a spider bite and blows up painfully over a few days into a pus-filled abscess--can damage skin tissue. But again, that's rare.

Ken Mayer, medical research director of Boston's LGBT-serving Fenway Community Health (which reported the Boston end of the study), says that Fenway currently sees one to two cases of MRSA a week. It's a clear increase over the past few years but not an epidemic. Tom Barrett, chief medical officer of Chicago's LGBT-focused Howard Brown Health Center, says, "Now when we see a skin infection we assume it's MRSA, because every [skin infection] we've cultured [in the lab] for several months is."

Because sex involves skin-to-skin contact, MRSA can be spread that way, which is likely why many gay men get the infection in their genital area. Of particular concern are users of drugs like crystal meth, because hours of drug-fueled sex can abrade the skin and let the infection in, especially if participants go a longtime without showering. …

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