PERSPECTIVE: More Superbug Hysteria

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | A study published online by the Annals of Internal Medicine on the spread of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) among gay men in San Francisco and Boston drew the predictable mainstream media coverage.

Let's not fool ourselves. MRSA is yet another serious health problem facing gay men and it is spread during sex – though the study came to no conclusions regarding specific sexual practices. But in the mainstream press, gay sex is to disease as radiation is to Godzilla – both create monsters.

In the mainstream press, gay sex is to disease as radiation is to Godzilla – both create monsters.

So we got “New superbug hitting gay men” for a headline in one Canadian paper. A London tabloid called it the “new HIV.” Lawrence K. Altman at the New York Times gave readers an error-filled piece writing that a “new, highly drug-resistant strain of the 'flesh-eating' MRSA bacteria” was spreading among us. This was typical of the press.

There were some exceptions. I will part company with my fellow press critics and say that Sabin Russell at the San Francisco Chronicle did an excellent job covering this story. I also believe that the study itself was very good, but, overall, the press coverage was an abomination.

It is possible to write about gay men and MRSA without hysteria. The gay press across the country has been covering MRSA since the first large outbreak among gay men in Los Angeles in late 2002 and early 2003.

Gay City News has published six stories. Metro Weekly and the Washington Blade, both in the nation's capital, have done stories as have the New York Blade and HX, a New York City glossy. The Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco has covered MRSA. I am sure that this list is incomplete and that other gay newspapers have done MRSA stories.

Gay City News published its first MRSA story in 2003. We wrote about the Los Angeles outbreak and that there was no evidence that the bug was among gay men here in New York City.

In 2004, we reported that MRSA had arrived in the city, with private doctors reporting cases among their gay clients. Doctors in Seattle, Chicago, and Washington, DC were also seeing cases among their gay clients.

Also in 2004, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was “aware of clusters of men who have sex with men” across the country who were dealing with MRSA infections. The gay health centers – Callen-Lorde here in New York City, Howard Brown in Chicago, and Whitman Walker in Washington – were not seeing large numbers then.

By early 2007, when we last reported on MRSA, the gay health centers in Boston and New York City were seeing many cases and, as far as we know, the caseload among private doctors has remained unchanged.

We watched and reported, as did much of the gay press, as this bug exploded on the West Coast and traveled across the country. The gay press has managed to report on MRSA without using inflammatory headlines and inaccurate content.

Of course, the mainstream press can write about MRSA without attacking its victims. Go to Google News and search on MRSA. You will find story after story about MRSA among athletes or patients in healthcare facilities or in schools and prisons.

What you won't find are headlines reading “Revolting Personal Hygiene Habits Spread MRSA Among High School Athletes” or “MRSA Outbreak in Mrs. Shelby's Kindergarten Class Threatens Innocent Victims: Playground Roughhousing Suspected Transmission Route.”

But when the mainstream press gets to stories that involve gay men and sex we become vectors for disease and threats to the general population. The fact that MRSA has already spread widely in the general population and it did so long before it spread among gay men is irelevant to these reporters. A whole lot of us are fed up.

In an inadequate follow-up story, which made no reference to its earlier shabby reporting, the Times spoke with Colin Thurlow, a 60-year-old gay man who lives in San Francisco.

“The way they keep targeting gays as if gays alone are responsible for it, it's like HIV/AIDS all over again,” Thurlow told the Times. “And we're sick and tired of it.”

I'm with Colin. We are all sick and tired of this.

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