Rise in staph cases concerns gay community on Cape Cod

Steve Desroches

Recent reports of a rise in a virulent strain of staph infections, particularly among gay men, has many in the gay community concerned and Outer Cape health care providers answering a lot of questions.

Several media reports over the past few weeks, most notably in The New York Times, report that rates of MRSA (an acronymn for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), more commonly known as a staph infection, is on the rise, according to men who have sex with men in Boston and San Francisco. That claim is based on a report that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine showing the results of the bicoastal study. The reports have many in the Outer Cape’s gay community worried not only because of health concerns, but also because of a possible homophobic backlash.

“There’s a lot of hysteria going on,” said David Goudreau, director of Harm Reduction Services for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod.

The Support Group, which operates an HIV and sexually transmitted disease outreach and prevention program, has been fielding a lot of questions and produced a flier with information about MRSA.

Some are concerned because epidemics that often arise in the gay community usually hit Provincetown soon after the start of the summer season, as has been the case for syphilis outbreaks in the past few years. Those concerns are intensified because media reports say that Boston seems to have a higher rate of MRSA than other cities.

“This has been around for a long time,” said Dr. Kenneth Mayer, a professor at Brown University and medical research director at the Fenway Community Health Center, a national leader in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health services and research. Mayer also was one of the co-authors of the study mentioned in The New York Times story.

The public should be aware, but not alarmed, said Mayer. The balance of informing the public without causing hysteria, he said, can be difficult to maintain. But in short, even though MRSA is resistant to traditional antibiotic treatments, it can be successfully treated. Prevention is basically about good hygiene and awareness, too.

However, Mayer adds that this is not a gay men’s problem. The Fenway Community Health Center and a San Francisco HIV clinic conducted the study, so the population examined was mostly men who have sex with men. MRSA is on the rise in general, said Mayer, as it is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, not exclusively sexual contact.

In the past, MRSA was primarily found in hospitals and other health care settings. Over the past few years MRSA has jumped into the general population at large, often being found in sports teams, military recruits, children, prisoners and men who have sex with men, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

MRSA is mainly contracted through skin-to-skin contact. The bacteria often cause a boil or a pimple that can be mistaken for a spider bite, according to a fact sheet published by the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston. Staph infections are treated with antibiotics, but the concern around MRSA is that it is resistant to normal treatments.

The main defense against MRSA is to wash hands regularly or use an alcohol-based cleanser. It is also important to keep any exposed cuts or wounds covered and to avoid contact with an open cut on someone else’s body. Also, avoid using someone else’s towel, clothing or personal items, such as a razor. While condoms are effective in reducing the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, they are not likely to prevent MRSA, according to both the CDC and the Fenway Community Health Center.

All health officials stress that anyone can contract MRSA, be it sexually transmitted or not. And that while the media reports are focusing on the gay community, MRSA can and does affect anyone regardless of sexual orientation.

“We don’t want the gay community to be stigmatized again,” said Goudreau.

Cape Codder