The Great MRSA Epidemic: Is It Time to Worry?

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"Once this reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable," researcher Binh Diep was quoted as saying Jan. 14. He also suggested that the germ may be spread through sexual activity -- a statement that, as noted in the discussion section of the paper, was not directly supported by the study's findings.

Diep has since said that his statements were mischaracterized. But some groups have already pointed to this notion as proof that gay sex facilitates MRSA's spread. One of these groups is Concerned Women for America.

"The medical community has known for years that homosexual conduct, especially among males, creates a breeding ground for often deadly disease," said Matt Barber, policy director for cultural issues at the CWA, in a statement issued over the weekend. "When two men mimic the act of heterosexual intercourse with one another, they create an environment, a biological counterfeit, wherein disease can thrive."

But Ginsberg says messages like the one conveyed by the CWA may give the public the wrong idea about the disease.

"The stereotype about gay men is that they are very promiscuous and are vectors for disease," he says. "We know that there are hate groups eager for any confirmation of their prejudices, and that they will seize upon anything they can to make the point that gay people are fundamentally sick.

"It's unfortunate that good quality research out of a respectable institution could become fodder for these hate groups."

Ginsberg says the CWA episode is reminiscent of diseases that, in the past, have been labeled "gay diseases." In the 1980s, AIDS was largely thought to be a disease that was spread primarily through gay sex.

And in 1976, a group of proctologists in New York City coined the term "gay bowel syndrome" to describe an illness that comprised hemorrhoids, anal fissures and other conditions of the lower intestine. The "disease" was later criticized as a collection of unrelated maladies, none of which were exclusively experienced by homosexual male patients.

Possible Behavioral Causes

Still, the question remains: Why was this strain seemingly more prevalent in the gay communities the researchers studied? The authors of the UCSF study speculated in their discussion that certain behaviors could be at play.

"It is not clear whether the behavior potentiating these infections among men who have sex with men is anal sex … skin-abrading sexual practices or increased frequency of skin-to-skin contact; prevention messages may therefore need to suggest caution in each of these practices," the UCSF researchers wrote.

But confirmation of a link between such practices and the spread of the disease remain tenuous at best, as noted in a Jan. 16 press release from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"MRSA is typically transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which occurs during a variety of activities, including sex," the statement reads. "There is no evidence at this time to suggest that MRSA is a sexually transmitted infection in the classical sense."

Beating an Epidemic -- With Common Sense

In the face of the concerns over MRSA, what is the appropriate course of action? While mention of the word "epidemic" may have some people shopping for protective suits and stocking up the bomb shelter larders, Pallin offers a different suggestion.

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