Health & Beauty | January 2008
|After Linking New Strain of Staph to Gay Men, University Scrambles to Clarify|
Jesse Mckinley - NYTimes
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San Francisco — In a matter of days, it jumped from a routine press release to a medical controversy.
|In the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, some concerns. (Heidi Schumann/New York Times)|
On Monday, a team of researchers led by doctors from the University of California at San Francisco announced that gay men were “many times more likely than others” to acquire a new strain of drug-resistant staphylococcus, a nasty, fast-spreading and potential lethal bacteria known as MRSA USA300. And sure enough, the study, published online in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was quickly picked up by reporters round the world and across the Internet, including a London tabloid which dubbed the disease “the new H.I.V.”
But for gay men in the Castro neighborhood here, which was an early epicenter for the AIDS epidemic and a current hot spot for MRSA, the report also seemed to cast an unfair, and all too familiar, stigma on their sexuality.
“The way they keep targeting gays as if gays alone are responsible for it, its like H.I.V./AIDS all over again,” said Colin Thurlow, 60, who is gay and lives in San Francisco. “And we’re sick and tired of it.”
The report also inadvertently offered ammunition for many antigay groups, including the conservative Concerned Women for America, which issued a release on Wednesday citing the “sexual deviancy” of gay men as leading to AIDS, syphilis and gonorrhea.
“The medical community has known for years that homosexual conduct, especially among males, creates a breeding ground for often deadly disease,” the release read.
Another group, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, also cited the report as a way of proving that “homosexual behavior is unhealthy.”
“Why aren’t all schoolchildren being taught that there are special health risks associated with homosexual behavior and that they should ‘just say no’ to homosexuality?” read a released posted on the group’s Web site.
National gay rights groups were quick to label such talk as “hysteria,” even as researchers as the university scrambled to clarify their findings. On Friday, it issued an apology, saying their release had “contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading.”
“We deplore negative targeting of specific populations in association with MRSA infections or other public health concerns,” it concluded. Dr. Henry Chambers, one of the report’s authors and a professor of medicine at the university, said he was surprised by how the report had been spun.
“I think we were looking at this from a scientific point of view and not projecting any political impact,” he said. “We were focusing on the data. You want to make sure it’s as right as possible and written up in a form that reviewers would understand what you’re trying to say, and do it in a clear manner so it’s not subject to misinterpretation. Which is what happened later, it appears.”
One of the major sore points for some critics was a quote attributed to the report’s lead author, Bien Diep, a researcher who said he was concerned about “a potential spread of this strain into the general population.”
Mr. Diep, 29, said on Friday he regretted not being more thorough in communicating his research to reporters. He said that the term “general population” was part of medical jargon used in the report, which did not translate well.
“It’s really meant to be used to mean all inclusive, including the men-who-have-sex-with-men population,” he said.
Worries about the negative press resonated even as some gay men here expressed concern about the disease itself. The report looked at nine San Francisco hospitals in 2004 and 2005. A separate part of the study, conducted at an AIDS clinic in the city from 2004 to 2006, found that gay men were 13 times more likely to be infected with MRSA USA300.
Josh Figurido, 27, a bartender at Metro, a popular gay bar in the Castro, said he had only heard about the strain this week, but was already taking precautions when it came to sex. “I’m definitely going to be a lot more careful with what goes on,” he said.
But Mr. Figurado said he was less concerned about antigay rhetoric. “It’s not just gay people that get it,” he said. “You can get it anywhere.”
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which helped finance the study, affirmed on Wednesday that the disease was not sexually transmitted or limited to a certain type of person. It is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, the agency said in a statement, and is widespread in hospitals and among hospital workers.
“These infections occur in men, women, adults, children and persons of all races and sexual orientations,” the statement read, adding that while the particular strain identified in the report had been found in gay men, it had also been found in people who were not gay.
For those who do come down with the disease, there are various treatments, including antibiotics. Preventive measures include frequently cleaning hands, clothes and open wounds. MRSA can cause painful sores, which should be lanced and treated to prevent the disease’s spread.
Jason Overcash, 37, a sales representative who lives near the Castro and is gay, said he was upset by the initial presentation of the report, which he said seemed geared to panic people both inside and out of the Castro.
“The way they presented it, it makes people think if they come here, they’re going to get MRSA,” he said.
That is an experience Mr. Overcash says he knows all too well: he contracted MRSA in 2002, and soon found a lesion on his left buttock. “It got to be like a golf ball in a matter of 36 hours,” he said. He tried three different antibiotic treatments, even as the lesions spread, before finally knocking it out.
“It was horrible, and that’s why I’m super hyper-aware of it,” Mr. Overcash said. “Because I don’t ever want to go through that again.”