Friday, January 30, 2015

From the Archives: MRSA

MRSA: The Myth and Truth Behind the So-Called “Newest Gay Plague” 

Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

In June 1981 Los Angeles doctors found a strange type of pneumonia, called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, in five young gay men. PCP is a type of pneumonia caused by a microorganism that occurs naturally in the lungs of people and animals. Although the medical professionals knew that PCP was associated with a weakened immune system, the cause of this impaired immunity was a mystery. The patients died within days. That same summer, a New York Times article announced the appearance of a rapidly fatal form of a rare cancer that doctors had found in 41homosexual men. A CBS newscaster also reported that this mysterious cancer seemed to be spreading only in the gay community. In 1985, the Center of Disease Control announced that it wasn’t a “gay cancer” after all causing all the disease and death, but rather a virus called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. The CDC also called the multitude of strange diseases the virus caused Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. It wasn’t until the disease claimed the life of a Hollywood celebrity that the threat of the virus was brought home to many Americans.  
Ripples. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Ripples. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

Fast forward to 2008. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, called attention to a multi-drug resistant staph infection, called MRSA, prevalent among men who have sex with men (MSM). The epicenter of this infection seemed to be San Francisco’s Castro district, and also Boston. Not long afterwards, reports started to surface, alarming individuals that the multi-drug infection, also referred to as  “the newest gay plague,” could take over the general population.

Reaction to the super-infection news is two-fold. Those who’ve lived through the early years of AIDS consider some media treatment of “the newest gay plague” news a “deja-vue” of the eighties. Those who’ve always considered AIDS a plague sent by God to punish sinners, use the “newest gay plague” news the same way they used the “gay cancer” and AIDS news to fuel homophobia and anti-gay hate crimes, to alarm and misinform individuals, thus, potentially, to put them at risk of getting infected with MRSA.

So, is MRSA a deadly threat? And why should we be aware of it, if at all? 

MRSA (pronounced MER-SUH), or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (staph for short) is an infection caused by bacteria present on the human body, for example, on the skin and in the nose also armpit, groin or genital area. Initially present only in hospitals and nursing homes, a strain of MRSA has extended to the general population. This new strain, called CA-MRSA, or Community-Associated MRSA, appears mainly in gyms. Depending on the type of sport they practice, athletes can get infected from rubbing against the gym equipment that, in turn, can cause broken skin on the hands, knees, elbows, buttocks or sides of their legs.

MRSA is easily spread through skin-to-skin contact, be that skin contact with people who are infected (including sexual contact) or touching contaminated surfaces. MRSA can appear as sores, blisters filled with fluid (called impetigo when they appear on the face), red painful bumps under the skin called boils or abscesses, or as cuts that become swollen and filled with pus. Some 25-50 percent Americans have staph in their nose, but they are unaware of it. In healthy individuals, MRSA infection may cause pimples. In individuals with a compromised or weakened immune system (such as those with HIV/AIDS) staph can cause deep skin infections, pneumonia, blood or joint infections.

Although MRSA is resistant to most of the antibiotics usually used to treat this kind of infection, doctors have not run out of options to treat this kind of staph infection. Experts make it clear that MRSA is not an “AIDS all over again” plague, it’s not a gay plague, but rather it can happen to anybody who comes in contact with the bacteria.

Practicing common sense when coming in contact with infected surfaces makes a huge difference in preventing infection. Experts advise taking a shower with soap and water. Unscented soaps like Ivory and Dove are less likely to cause skin allergies. Fact is—soap and water can kill 99.9 percent of the staph.