Staph infection — the full story

In the flesh
By TONY GIAMPETRUZZI  |  January 23, 2008


Reading the New York Times this past week, you might have thought gay guys were becoming the unwitting vessels of a rare, unyielding flesh-eating disease. Making matters worse, the story (NEW BACTERIA STRAIN IS STRIKING GAY MEN) said the bacteria was attacking and spreading among gay men in San Francisco and Boston.

That’s right, a rare bug that threatened to eat away at gay guys like mice on cheese is rampant right here, where New England cruises.

The Times also said the bacteria are transmitted by sex, or by a simple touch. According to the initial report, released online this past week by the Annals of Internal Medicine, the Times said, “the new strain seems to have ‘spread rapidly’ in gay populations in San Francisco and Boston . . . and ‘has the potential for rapid, nationwide dissemination’ among gay men.”

Within hours, an AIDS-like panic was under way. EPIDEMIC FEARED — GAYS MAY SPREAD DEADLY STAPH INFECTION TO GENERAL POPULATION was the headline of a press release issued by the conservative group Concerned Women for America; a European paper dubbed the bacteria “the new HIV.”

Not quite. The Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (S. aureus for short) has been around for years, most commonly in hospitals, but the new strain (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA) is more aggressive than it was in the past, and happens to be found in gay men — possibly because they tend to be treated for STDs.

Dr. Stephen Boswell of Boston’s Fenway Community Health, a well-known expert on matters such as STDs (not that this bacteria is one) says that gay men need not be alarmed — just aware.

“It’s certainly reasonable to believe that S. aureus bacteria is transmitted during sex, but we’re really not sure,” says Boswell, making a distinction between skin-contact transmission (including when skin touches during sex) and diseases that are transmitted only or primarily when engaged in sex acts.

“This is something that needs to be dealt with . . . quickly if you have it. And, if you’re a doctor . . . and you’re not familiar with this strain, you might be tempted to prescribe a common drug that wouldn’t treat the infection,” says Boswell, who described a boil in a gay man’s nether regions as a sign of the infection. “This is not a new thing, and I don’t think that it will remain confined to gay men, but everyone needs to know that it is a problem that is developing, that they need to be seen and treated early by people who are knowledgeable.”

In other words, if you have a seeping boil on your ass or near your penis, and you’ve had any contact with another guy (or girl, for that matter), get to a doctor and let him or her know that it could be something other than an ingrown hair.

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