It’s difficult to express the ire I felt encountering the San Francisco Chronicle’s headline and accompanying article on Tuesday morning written by Sabin Russell, Chronicle Medical Writer, about a supposedly new staph infection epidemic at which San Francisco’s gay community is at the epicenter.
Along with the sensational headline, S.F. gay community an epicenter for new strain of virulent staph, a graphic, looking conveniently like a quarantine blueprint, colored San Francisco’s Castro district red.
Russell had taken a study released by UCSF in Annals of Internal Medicine, concisely titled Emergence of Multidrug-Resistant, Community-Associated, Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus Clone USA300 in Men Who Have Sex with Men.
Failing to heed, perhaps the most important sentence in the Editor’s notes, appropriately under the heading “Cautions” which read: “The data were passively reported or retrospectively collected and are therefore subject to bias,” the Chronicle seemed to ignore the key word in editor’s “implications” as well. “Multidrug-resistant USA300 MRSA infection is especially common among men who have sex with men. It might be sexually transmitted in this population.” Might being the operative word.
That didn’t stop an idiot from Reuters named Amanda Beck from opening an article with: “A drug-resistant strain of potentially deadly bacteria has moved beyond the borders of U.S. hospitals and is being transmitted among gay men during sex, researchers said on Monday.” Note how the might changed to is.
Did San Francisco Chronicle’s Sabin Russell actually read the study, or did he just rely on a horribly misinformed and inflammatory press release issued by the UCSF press office? Among the gems in this press release:
"But because the bacteria can be spread by more casual contact, we are also very concerned about a potential spread of this strain into the general population."
"The potential widespread dissemination of multi-resistant form of USA300 into the general population is alarming.”
The last time I checked, gay men were already part of the general population. And the first thing that crossed my mind as I read the article was the coverage I had already seen relating to drug-resistant staph infections, particularly in sports. Although once limited to hospitals or other healthcare facilities, MRSA infections are very common among healthy children and adults in many settings, from the high school locker room to the local gym to any potentially contaminated surface.
Last October, a county in southern Virginia closed its 21 schools to clean them to prevent the spread of a dangerous bacterial infection after a 17-year-old high school student died from a staph infection.
In August 2, 2004, the University of Michigan issued a balanced, hysteria-free press release related to the emergence of drug-resistant staph infections.
“Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is one of these types of bacteria which is now found among athletes, military recruits and others in the general population,” it stated.
While they also used the term “general population,” the segment of the population they were referring to as excluded from that population, were people in healthcare settings, where staph infections have been more common, regardless of gender, religion, race or sexual orientation.
Quoting Suzanne Bradley, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and University of Michigan Health System, the University of Michigan press release cautioned as follows:
“…hospitals have been dealing with MRSA at least since the 1980s, but it wasn't until the mid-1990s that doctors began diagnosing serious MRSA infections in people that never had any contact with a health care system, including healthy children, athletes and military recruits.
“We've seen outbreaks in athletes, collegiate athletes and professional football players. Since staph is acquired primarily by direct human contact, anyone with a break in their skin who has a lot of contact with others is potentially at risk.”
So what’s the beef, you might wonder? First, the findings of this new study are anything but new. That they chose to explore staph infections in gay men could only result in a finding related to gay men. Would the results have been any different had they chosen to examine the medical records of female athletes?
The biggest problem I have with the UCSF press release, parroted and sensationalized by the Chronicle, is the language. Were the Editors at the Chronicle too focused on meeting with Obama or the breathless Tatiana tiger coverage? How could the San Francisco Chronicle, the same publication that boasted And the Band Played On’s Randy Shilts as a journalist, publish such a shoddy, ill-researched, scare-mongering piece of unadulterated garbage without considering the implications of the community it serves, gay or straight?
While it was instantly predictable that activists like Michael Petrelis would be justifiably outraged, similar responses in the blogosphere were as swift and as damning. And while the Chronicle wasn’t the only publication to pump out the sensationalist tripe extrapolated from UCSF’s press release, it should be ashamed of its inability to consider the implications of its irresponsibility.
For anyone who thinks the response to this is an overreaction, or questions the usefulness of Michael Petrelis' advocacy, I just learned of a written apology issued to Petrelis by the author of the UCSF press release, Wallace Ravven, in which he agrees to a public apology in a more satisfying context to be issued soon.
It was just as instantly predicable that the rabid homophobia of organizations like Concerned Women for America (who once labeled me a pornographer in a press release) would latch on to this coverage and use it as a pretext to instill fear, hate and division among their already confused constituents. As illustrated by their statements in a panic-inducing press release, rationally tilted “Epidemic Feared - 'Gays' May Spread Deadly Staph Infection to General Population:
The medical community has known for years that homosexual conduct, especially among males, creates a breeding ground for often deadly disease. In recent years we have seen a profound resurgence in cases of HIV/AIDS, syphilis, rectal gonorrhea and many other STDs among those who call themselves 'gay.'
"The human body is quite callous in how it handles mistreatment and the perversion of its natural functions. When two men mimic the act of heterosexual intercourse with one another, they create an environment, a biological counterfeit, wherein disease can thrive. Unnatural behaviors beget natural consequences.
"In recent years our culture has adopted a laissez faire attitude toward sexual deviancy. Television shows like Will and Grace glorify the homosexual lifestyle while our children are taught in schools that homosexuality is a perfectly healthy, alternative sexual 'orientation.' 'Stay out of our bedrooms!' we're often commanded by militant 'gay' activists.
"Well, now the dangerous and possibly deadly consequence of what occurs in those bedrooms is spilling over into the general population. It's not only frightening, it's infuriating.”
Actually, what are frightening and infuriating are UCSF’s press release, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s related coverage. And how much people like Matt Barber of Concerned Women for America (I know, the irony!), despise their own children enough to misinform them and lead them to believe they’re in more danger of being infected by coming into contact with a gay person than they are sharing a towel in the locker room at the Christian gym.
"These multi-drug resistant infections often affect gay men at body sites in which skin-to-skin contact occurs during sexual activities. Once this reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable," vomited Binh Diep, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who led the study. "That's why we're trying to spread the message of prevention."
Oh really? And if indeed the concern is for the gay men studied, how much more evidence do you need, without a fat grant, to realize that gay men will tune out to anti-sex, anti-gay messages that demonize them and try instill unwarranted fear into them? Unless of course Binh Diep was spreading the “prevention” message to the “general population” in which case his remarks would still have the complete opposite effect. So we should heed his advice, and go forth safe in the knowledge that body sites where skin-to-skin contact occurs between heterosexuals are not vulnerable to staph infections? Spread the word.
If there was one thing to be gained from this useless study, or one iota of intelligent prevention advice that could have been imparted by the coverage, it’s that people living with HIV or AIDS or compromised immune systems ought to be cautioned against the risk of being infected by the “general population.” Regardless of whether they’re straight or gay.
The current Presidential primaries have been remarkably free, so far, of the usual gay hating rhetoric that has permeated them in election seasons past. (Mike Huckabee being the looney-bin exception, and, honestly, who takes that idiot seriously anyway?)
Thanks to The San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters and other media organizations that were seduced by UCSF’s sensational press release, a fresh injection of hate, confusion and fear-mongering took care of ensuring that homophobia remains front and center in 2008.
Apologies, at this point, while might be appreciated by the likely victims of this disgrace, are probably too little too late. While simple acts of basic hygiene and washing one’s hands with soap and water might help prevent staph infections, it will take a lot more to prevent whatever disease permeates American newsrooms.
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The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
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