Pete Winn | Senior Staff Writer | Monday, January 28, 2008
Almost two weeks ago, researchers announced they have isolated a new form of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, an infection that is spreading through San Francisco's homosexual community and could spread to the general community.
"These multi-drug resistant infections often affect gay men at body sites in which skin-to-skin contact occurs during sexual activities," said Binh Diep, the University of California-San Francisco scientist who led the team that made the finding.
In fact, the researchers determined that this variant of MRSA infection is 13 to 14 times more prevalent in homosexual men than for the general population.
But the media are now obscuring that fact, according to Matt Barber, director of cultural policy for Concerned Women for America (CWA).
"The real story here is the way that the media have whitewashed this outbreak," Barber told Cybercast News Service. "It is amazing to see what they've done with this."
Barber said the initial reporting of the outbreak was "pretty solid" and news accounts related the facts "as is," but the coverage began to change after conservative groups like CWA noted that this variant is primarily spread by men having anal sex.
"The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and other organizations began to jump up and down a bit and scream, and The New York Times and other organizations started to backpedal," Barber said.
"The story was no longer the dangers associated with the outbreak - and the behaviors associated with it," said Barber. "The story now became about how groups like mine were supposedly misrepresenting the outbreak as some sort of 'new gay plague' or 'the new AIDS' - things we never said."
Indeed, HRC accused CWA and others of being "anti-gay bigots" for recommending that one way to stop this outbreak of the infection is for homosexual men to curtail having anal sex - at least for a while.
"Serious medical issues deserve serious consideration, not wildly off-the-mark press releases from anti-gay groups trying to capture media attention," HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a news release.
"We saw this kind of hysteria in the early 1980s around HIV/AIDS, and I'll be damned if we will sit idly by in 2008 and let them perpetrate that type of anti-gay hysteria without calling them out on it," he said.
Since the homosexual backlash, the University of California-San Francisco has apologized for the fact that the study mentions homosexual men.
"We regret that our recent news report (1-14-08) about an important population-based study on MRSA USA300 with public health implications contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading," the university's Web site said.
"We deplore negative targeting of specific populations in association with MRSA infections or other public health concerns, and we will be working to ensure that accurate information about the research is disseminated to the health community and the general public," it added.
Even the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken a somewhat politically correct line. In a statement issued recently on the new outbreak, the government agency said it is "not a sexually transmitted disease in the classic sense" - and that spread of the bacteria could be stopped by washing hands and covering open wounds.
"We never suggested that it was a sexually transmitted disease," CWA's Barber countered. "We only talked about the specific behaviors that are causing this infection to spread."
Internationally known infectious disease specialist Dr. John Diggs is siding with the conservatives. The Massachusetts-based physician said treating any infection in a politically correct manner could be dangerous. Treating MRSA that way could prove fatal.
"This outbreak is especially troubling because it is a community-based form of MRSA," said Diggs, who is an executive committee member of the Physicians Consortium. "Until recently, MRSA has typically been confined to hospitals. The implications are very serious, because we don't know exactly where this is going to go."
Medically speaking, any break in the skin that is exposed to the organism can then set off an infection, which can destroy "a lot of tissue" before it's brought under control, Diggs said.
"You can take something that was relatively isolated in a small place, and suddenly, when it spreads to the general population, things such as school wrestling matches, or football games or basketball games or other sporting events, can take on a specter - they can become deadly," he added.
The fact is, the epicenter for this outbreak is among men who are having sex with men, Diggs told Cybercast News Service. Researchers identified the rates of drug resistance on the basis of ZIP codes, not ideology.
"The particular ZIP codes they looked at were ones that were associated primarily with men who were having sex with other men," he said, "the Castro district in San Francisco and also a healthcare center called the Fenway, here in Massachusetts, in Boston."
Diggs noted that the study itself pointed out that the infection manifests as "an abscess in the buttocks, genitals or perineum" and concluded that it "probably started out in San Francisco, and has been disseminated by the frequent cross-coastal travel" of homosexual men traveling from San Francisco to Boston.
"Men who practice anal sex, men who have promiscuous sex, men who have multiple partners in short periods of time are much more likely to spread this disease," he said. "It's not because of who they are. It's because of that they do."
"Now I know that a lot of people have attacked those who have brought this to people's attention as being homophobic, but the real issue - and you have to face the facts - is that men who have sex with men have very high rates of sexually transmitted disease," Diggs said.
"When you face that reality, then you have to start taking a serious look and deciding that the best public health intervention is to discourage behavior that causes the infection to spread."
The biggest problem with this new strain - as with any variant of MRSA, Diggs said, is that it is increasingly difficult to find drugs that will effectively combat the problem.
The study appears in the online version of The Annals of Internal Medicine.
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