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January 22, 2008

California MRSA Study Causes Uproar

When a press release issued by the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) linked a new strain of drug-resistant staphylococcus—a virulent and potentially deadly bacteria otherwise known as MRSA USA300—to gay men, reporters around the world jumped on the story. Word spread quickly that gay men supposedly were “many times more likely than others” to acquire MRSA USA300; one British tabloid even coined the disease “the new HIV,” reports The New York Times (, 1/20).

The study (and a press release issued about the study’s findings) also fueled the fire of antigay groups, says the Times. The conservative group Concerned Women for America, for example, claimed, “the ‘sexual deviancy’ of gay men leads to AIDS, syphilis and gonorrhea,” and Americans for Truth About Homosexuality used the report as evidence that “homosexual behavior is unhealthy.”

Meanwhile, gay rights groups across the nation denounced the media hype around MRSA USA300 and its link to gay men as “hysteria,” while the UCSF researchers who issued the report were forced to clarify statements about their findings.

On January 18, UCSF released a public apology in response to the controversy, saying their press release—first published online by Annals of Internal Medicine—“contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading.” It added, “We deplore negative targeting of specific populations in association with MRSA infection or other public health concerns.”

One of the main concerns voiced by gay rights advocates has surrounded a quote attributed to the study’s lead author, Binh Diep. In the press release, Diep said he was “concerned about a potential spread of this strain into the general population.”

The Times reports that Diep later clarified his statement, saying that “the term ‘general population’ was part of medical jargon used in the report, which did not translate well.”

Indeed, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which helped finance the study, weighed in, affirming that the disease was “not sexually transmitted or limited to a certain type of person.” “It is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact,” the CDC said in a statement, “and is widespread in hospitals and among hospital workers.” The CDC’s statement also indicated that while this strain of MRSA had been found in gay men, it had also been found in people who were not gay. “These infections,” the statement read, “occur in men, women, adults, children and persons of all races and sexual orientations.”

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