Researchers contrite over gay MRSA story

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Public affairs officials in San Francisco have apologised for the way in which a statement last Tuesday about gay men being more vulnerable to a new super-resistant strain of the MRSA superbug was handled.

Parts of the tabloid press dubbed it a “new HIV.”

In a new statement on their website, the University of California at San Francisco’s (UCSF) Department of Public Affairs states they “regret that our recent news report about an important population-based study on MRSA USA300 with public health implications contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has warned that although the association of MRSA with gay men does not necessarily reflect sexual transmission per se, clinicians across Europe should be aware of this particular strain when treating gay men.

The ECPD added that pending further research, awareness may also need to be promoted among the gay community to highlight the symptoms, prevention measures and implications of the superbug.

The original UCSF press release, entitled Sexually-active gay men vulnerable to new, highly infectious bacteria was based on a study due to be published in the February 19th issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

It focused on a recently-identified strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) that is resistant to most types of antibiotic, and which appears to be more prevalent in gay men in San Francisco than in the general population.

The press release was picked up by the media throughout the world.

UK tabloid newspaper Metro said it was the “new HIV,” while others called the new strain of MRSA a “gay disease.”

It also provided ammunition for anti-gay groups, including the conservative Concerned Women for America, which issued its own press release on Wednesday, entitled, “Epidemic feared – ‘gays’ may spread deadly staph infection to general population.”

Many of the news stories failed to report that it is still usually easily treatable, can be prevented by simple hygiene measures, and is rarely life-threatening.

A day after the original UCSF statement was released the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which helped finance the study, issued a statement:

“The groups of MSM [men who have sex with men] in which these isolates have been described are not representative of all MSM, so conclusions cannot be drawn about the prevalence of these strains among all MSM.

“The groups studied in this report may share other characteristics or behaviours that facilitate spread of MRSA, such as frequent skin-to-skin contact.”

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

The UCSF Department of Public Affairs said:

“We deplore negative targeting of specific populations in association with MRSA infections or other public health concerns, and we will be working to ensure that accurate information about the research is disseminated to the health community and the general public.”

At the end of last week the website of US news magazine, Newsweek ran a story entitled A New ‘Gay Disease about the study and the world’s reaction to it, and quoted one of the study’s authors, Dr Henry (Chip) Chambers, who stated bluntly, “This is definitely not the new AIDS.”

On Thursday, a rapid communication from members of the HIV/STI/Blood-borne viruses project, and the antimicrobial resistance project, at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in Stockholm, was published in Eurosurveillance, reported.

It examined the original journal article and discussed the relevance to Europe, where this strain of MRSA is rare.

They wrote that the suggestion that multidrug-resistant MRSA “may be being sexually transmitted by MSM is debatable, and more research is needed to discover if this is in fact the case.”

They pointed out their concerns with the researchers’ methodology and conclusions, noting that, “sexual risk could only be assessed by the authors using proxy-indicators. At this time there is no evidence that this MRSA strain is transmitted sexually in the classical sense of the term.

“If this MRSA strain is introduced in Europe, it may travel rapidly within the MSM community, with the potential for outbreaks.

“It may initially remain unnoticed because of a lack of awareness about this disease and if diagnosis is done outside the regular STI and HIV care.”

The link between community-acquired MRSA, HIV-positive gay men and sexual transmission is not new.

In 2005 was reported that community-acquired MRSA infections were being observed with greater frequency among HIV-positive patients in San Diego, and that community-acquired MRSA in HIV-positive gay men in Los Angeles was associated with sex, drug use and environmental exposure.

A 2006 study tracking MRSA infections in patients admitted to an HIV hospital ward in San Francisco between 1996 to 2005, found that one community-acquired strain, USA300, first identified in 2002 made up 93% of MRSA by 2005.