Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

MRSA media fiasco
spawns activist group


Dr. Richard Loftus. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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In the wake of recent coverage of multi-drug-resistant staph infection in men who have sex with men, a new group is forming in San Francisco. The group – which hasn't been named yet – hopes to deal with the stigma around drug-resistant staph, as well as educate and encourage communication among community members, journalists, doctors, researchers, and health department officials.

The group's formation is a result of media coverage and a news release last month touting a study at the University of California, San Francisco. That study said that men who have sex with men are more likely to become infected with USA300, a strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. But statements in the UCSF news release fanned the flames of homophobia. In the press release lead researcher Binh An Diep said that they are concerned "about a potential spread of this strain into the general population." Drug-resistant staph is already in the general population, and the tone of the news release angered many activists.

Mainstream media organizations latched on to the research and played up the gay angle, upsetting many in the community, who said they were reminded of the days when AIDS was portrayed as a "gay disease." They pointed out that MRSA has appeared for years in other communities, and questioned why gay men were singled out in the research.

UCSF later issued an apology on its Web site after being contacted by activist Michael Petrelis, and revised the news release. But by then, mainstream media outlets had already published their articles.

The UCSF information also included a map showing a high concentration of multiple-drug resistant USA300 in the Castro.

By tracking studies, asking lots of questions, and developing relationships with people like journalists and researchers, the new group hopes to prevent situations similar to what happened last month.

They also plan to address issues besides MRSA – such as HIV, access to health care, and other concerns. Ten people attended the first meeting, which was held in a Stop AIDS Project conference room Monday, February 4.

Dr. Richard Loftus, of the Health Management Institute Inc. at the California Pacific Medical Center, Davis Campus, said he's seen patients with MRSA for years. At a MRSA forum co-sponsored by the Stop AIDS Project, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and others January 30, Loftus decried a lack of community activism around MRSA and other issues, and welcomed others to start the group with him to address the problems.

The forum, which drew about 100 health care workers and other community members to the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, featured representatives from UCSF, the city's public health department, and Loftus.

Dr. Henry Chambers, one of the university researchers responsible for the study, explained the research at the forum. Afterward, he told the Bay Area Reporter that he hadn't intended to stigmatize anybody. He said the potential impact of the research "didn't dawn on me."

Others discussed how MRSA is spread and what it looks like. They also described steps the city's taking to keep people informed, such as enhancing Internet sites. During a question-and-answer period, many in the audience had questions related to hygiene. Panelists responded that preventing staph infection can be as easy as washing your hands thoroughly.

Loftus and others feel a lack of activism is at least partially to blame for the MRSA coverage. They also blamed journalists' tendency toward sensationalism.

"We've always been a hell-raising city, and I'd like to see that keep going," Loftus said at Monday's meeting.

At the meeting, attendees recalled the heyday of groups like ACT UP, when activists worked to ensure AIDS was covered accurately in the media, and that people living with AIDS got the help they needed. ACT UP also targeted the federal Food and Drug Administration to get it to approve drugs quicker, and has battled the drug companies over pricing issues.

Michael Scarce, Stop AIDS Project's Internet intervention coordinator, said that the information went from doctors to journalists "like a game of telephone." Scarce attended Monday's meeting not as a representative of the Stop AIDS Project, but as a community activist.

The UCSF research was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Since then, the university has apologized for aspects of the way the research was presented, and officials have said community participation will be solicited in the future.

The activist group is working on a letter to demand an apology from the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran an article on the research with the headline "S.F. gay community an epicenter for new strain of virulent staph." They also want an apology from reporter Sabin Russell, who wrote the Chronicle story. The draft letter states the reporter insinuated, "MRSA was spreading due to gay men's sexual activities." Russell did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

At the meeting, group members discussed several things they could do, including starting a support group for people with MRSA, creating a YouTube video to help educate the community, and creating a public directory of research that's under way in order to encourage community participation.

They also talked about encouraging doctors to "think outside the box" when treating MRSA, and asking lots of questions of people like researchers and public health officials.

The group's next meeting will be at 7:30 p.m., Monday, February 11 at the Stop AIDS Project office at 2128 15th Street.

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