|by Chris Crain|
|Dj AIDS all over again
"Flesh Eating Super Bug Spreads Among Gays"
That headline and variations of it appeared around the world this past month as the mainstream media went into panic overdrive in response to research showing gay men in San Francisco and several other urban areas were at a higher risk of infection from a drug-resistant form of staph infection.
Staph infection is common in hospital settings and small outbreaks can occur in any intimate environment, including among athletes using the same shower and training facilities. This virulent strain, known as MRSA, is particularly gruesome and resistant to treatment; it can even eat flesh as it embeds deep into the skin, causing disfiguration and even death.
The headlines were the result of new research from the University of California at San Francisco concluding that MRSA had leapt the bounds of hospitals and gymnasiums and was putting gay men in several major U.S. cities at 13 times the risk of infection as their heterosexual neighbors.
The hysteria to follow was completely predictable, at least for anyone familiar with the early days of "the gay cancer" later known as HIV/AIDS. One London tabloid even dubbed MRSA "the new HIV."
The first leap, of course, was to point the finger at gay men for infecting each other with MRSA the same way we infect everything elsethrough sex.
"We think that it's spread through sexual activity," Binh Diep, the UCSF researcher, was widely reporting as saying. "Once this reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable."
The only problem is that Diep's conclusion about how this staph is spreading was totally unsupported by the actual UCSF research.
"Specific sexual behaviors were not assessed or documented in clinic charts," concludes the UCSF research report, "we therefore cannot comment on the association between [MRSA] infection and specific malemale sexual practices."
The fact is that MRSA has infected women, children and heterosexual men and can be spread through any form of direct skin contact, especially involving an open sore or cut. UCSF later issued a release apologizing for the linkage between MRSA and gay sex, but the damage was already done.
Anti-gay groups responded much the way they did back in the 1980sor, in the case of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as late as 1992. You remember that Huckabee, now the evangelicals' darling in the GOP presidential contest, caught flak for cynically using the horrors of HIV to declare in his 1992 campaign for the U.S. Senate that homosexuality "poses a dangerous public health risk."
Well, fast forward 16 years and the hysteria surrounding MRSA, and cue Matt Barber of the Concerned Women of America.
"The medical community has known for years that homosexual conduct, especially among males, creates a breeding ground for often deadly disease," Barber said, blaming television shows like "Will & Grace" for "glorifying the homosexual lifestyle."
Ditto Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, which said the report was proof 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?"
You can perhaps excuse, Binh Diep, the UCSF research who linked gay sex with MRSA, since at 29 he's too young to remember the lethal mix of political blame and scientific complacency that characterized the early AIDS years.
But the same can't be said for the Bush administration and its Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Ironically, Barber wasn't too far off the mark in pointing the finger at "the medical community" for reacting too slowly to public health threats that are originally associated with gay men. We saw it during Reagan and Bush I with HIV/AIDS, and we've already seen it under Bush II with the return of syphilis.
Now comes staph infection, which despite last week's media firestorm is not "new" at all. The gay press was reporting initial outbreaks of drug-resistant staph among gay men in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., as far back as January 2003a full five years before the UCSF report.
What exactly has the Bush administration and the CDC spent the last five years doing about MRSA? Where were the public health warnings and aggressive prevention efforts within the gay community? Why don't we know more about how MRSA is spread and, even more crucially, how it can be prevented?
Is the CDC so cowered by the Bush administration's abstinence-only attitude that it covered its eyes hoping MRSA would simply go away? Those are the questions the media should be askingrather than feeding a fresh round of public hysteria about infectious gay men.
Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade, Southern Voice, and gay publications in three other cities. He can be reached via his blog at www.citizencrain.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 01 February 08, 2008