Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded

Last week there were rumors that an exotic new disease had hit the gay community in New York. Here are the facts. From the New York City Department of Health, Dr. Steve Phillips explained that the rumors are for the most part unfounded. Each year, approximately 12 to 24 cases of infection with a protozoa-life organism, pneumocystis carini, are reported in the New York City area. The organism is not exotic, in fact, it’s ubiquitous. But most of us have a natural or easily acquired immunity. In general, the disease is seen only in severely debilitated patients whose ability to fight infections has been severely compromised (such individuals are called “compromised hosts”). By far, the majority of cases have been elderly patients with advanced cancer.

What’s unusual about the cases reported this year is that eleven of them were not obviously compromised hosts. The possibility therefore exists that a new, more virulent strain of the organism may have been “ community acquired.” But this possibility is regarded as far less likely than the immunodeficiency explanation. “What distinguishes these victims,” Phillips emphasized, “is not how or where they were exposed so much as why they got the disease.”

Regarding the inference that a slew of recent victims have been gay men, simultaneously infected with amebiasis, Phillips confirmed that four of the five cases recently seen at Bellevue were said to be gay men. As of last week, one had died. But of the eleven cases this year that have been tentatively identified as community acquired, only five or six have been gay. And “ if any of them had amebiasis, it was incidental.” Dr. Phillips is Epidemic Intelligence Officer of the Communicable Diseases Center in Atlanta, assigned to the New York City Department of Health.

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