Put the words “flesh-eating bacteria” into the news mix. Throw in a quote like, “Once this reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable.” Add the line “men who have sex with men.”
Those are the catchphrases about a strain of staph infection that has been grabbing headlines around the world. Medical news stories were reduced to sound bites about a “new gay disease.” Traditional values groups say it was bound to happen, while homosexual rights groups cry “homophobia.”
It is reminiscent of the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s, with the public left wondering what to think and what to do about it.
So, what is the truth about the findings of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) infections in homosexual neighborhoods in San Francisco and Boston? And why are public health officials watching it so closely?
First, some background: Staph bacteria are ubiquitous and pose one of the most common causes of skin infections in the U.S., said Denise Murphy, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).
Staph bacteria are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact or by touching infected surfaces, such as athletic equipment, razors or towels. Most infections stay on the skin’s surface — as pimples or boils — and are cured easily with antibiotic creams or pills.
They also are easily prevented: Even virulent strains of staph are killed by washing infected skin with soap and water.
Staph bacteria end up in headlines because some strains, such as MRSA, resist certain antibiotics and can develop swiftly into deadly infections, including necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease), sepsis and pneumonia. In 2005, MRSA caused 94,000 life-threatening infections and nearly 19,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For years, MRSA was found exclusively in hospital settings. But in 2000, strains of MRSA called USA300 began striking healthy people in places such as schools, military barracks and prisons.
Some of these “community” cases of MRSA end tragically. In December, for instance, a Montgomery County teacher died of MRSA, and in October, a Staunton River, Va., high school senior succumbed to the infection.
MRSA itself is evolving. In 2004, researchers identified a new strain of USA300 MRSA in an outpatient clinic for HIV/AIDS patients. This new “multidrug resistant” USA300 MRSA strain fends off even more kinds of drugs, and news of its spread in homosexual neighborhoods triggered international alarm last month with the release of a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The new MRSA strain “has spread rapidly among men who have sex with men in San Francisco and Boston,” wrote Binh Diep and Henry F. Chambers, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF).
Noting that a substantial minority of infections occurred on men’s buttocks and genitals, the study cited sex between men. The study urged public health officials to use the proper drugs to treat these infections and stress prevention messages — particularly proper hygiene — to homosexual and other at-risk communities.
UCSF study found that homosexual men in San Francisco were 13 times more likely to be infected with the new strain of MRSA than their heterosexual neighbors.
“Once this [multidrug-resistant MRSA strain] reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable,” Mr. Diep told Reuters news agency.
The UCSF’s candid findings and Mr. Diep’s comment were enough to start a flurry of headlines and press releases about a new “homosexual” disease.
“Unnatural behaviors beget natural consequences,” said Matt Barber of Concerned Women for America. “Big City Homosexual Men Are Epicenter of New Virulent MRSA Staph Strain,” said a press release from the traditional values group Americans for Truth, which in turn echoed a Jan. 15 headline in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Homosexual rights groups and blogs quickly cried “homophobia.”
“We saw this kind of hysteria in the early 1980s around HIV/AIDS [and I will not] sit idly by in 2008 and let them perpetrate that type of anti-gay hysteria without calling them out on it,” said Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest homosexual rights organization.
“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 San Francisco blogger and AIDS activist Michael Petrelis.
UCSF issued a new press release that omitted “sexually active gay men” from the headline, and the CDC issued a statement saying there was no evidence that the new MRSA strain “is a sexually transmitted infection in the classical sense.”
Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute at the Media Research Center, said those responses were “a clear example of politicizing science.”
“There’s no question [an infection is] spreading among gay men in these big cities and it should alarm everyone,” he told Concerned Women for America in an online interview.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first rapid blood test for MRSA. Health care workers now will be able to identify the source of a staph infection “in only two hours,” said Dr. Daniel G. Schultz, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.