The Great MRSA Epidemic: Is It Time to Worry?

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Flesh-eating bacteria. A drug-resistant menace, spreading silently through hospital hallways.

If one were asked to come up with a recipe for a panic-inducing disease, it would be hard to come up with something more horrifying than methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus -- or MRSA.

But even as new research suggests that the disease may be spreading though the homosexual community -- and could even be developing into a full-blown epidemic -- health experts studying MRSA say panic over the disease may be premature.

Just ask Dr. Daniel Pallin, director of clinical research in the department of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Pallin led a team of investigators to track the rise in the number of infections from drug-resistant staph germs between 1993 and 2005 using government-provided data. Their mission: to determine whether we have an epidemic on our hands.

"In simple terms, the answer is yes," Pallin says. "The number of emergency room visits for these skin infections increased by about triple."

Specifically, Pallin and his colleagues discovered that visits to emergency departments due to MRSA rose from 1.2 million in 1993 to 3.4 million in 2005. Community-acquired MRSA infections have become the No. 1 cause of abscesses in otherwise healthy emergency room patients.

But Pallin, whose study will appear in the upcoming issue of the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine, says that despite the confirmation that a MRSA epidemic is in full swing, the disease does not pose the level of disaster that the use of the term might suggest.

"This suggests to us that this actually is an epidemic, though it is an epidemic of a minor disease, and we don't want to create hysteria," he says. "I would say that people should be concerned but maybe not afraid or worried. But a certain level of concern is appropriate."

According to the study, the overall percentage of all emergency room patients who had MRSA skin infections rose from 1.35 percent in 1993 to 2.98 percent in 2005. And researchers found that of these cases, only 14 percent required admission to the hospital. Many cases did not even require treatment with antibiotics.

From Hospitals to Homosexuals, Worries Spread

But some say MRSA fears are spreading faster than the disease itself. Joel Ginsberg, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, says a different piece of research released last week may have been twisted to foster a wave of homophobia.

In a study released by the Annals of Internal Medicine Jan. 14, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco looked at populations of men in both hospitals and a clinic for HIV-positive patients. What they found was that men who had sex with men were 13 times more likely to get a certain form of MRSA.

Immediately, news organizations reported that the infection was passed through gay sex -- even though no hard evidence of such a route of transmission existed. One U.K. paper labeled the strain as "the new HIV."

"It seemed like there was some impulse to go straight to the most salacious way of talking about this issue," Ginsberg says. "We've seen that so much with issues affecting gay men's health. It strikes a nerve."

In particular, Ginsberg cites a comment last week by one of the study's lead researchers to Reuters reporters that may have been used by anti-gay groups in a barrage of what he characterizes as stereotypes and misinformation.

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