In response to headlines such as “A new gay disease?” (Newsweek) and “Strain of superbug 'may be new HIV'” (Metro), the University of California at San Francisco’s (UCSF) Department of Public Affairs has issued an apology “regret[ting] that our recent news report about an important population-based study on MRSA USA300 with public health implications contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading.”
In addition, both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have responded to the report and the widespread misinformation that followed.
The original January 14th UCSF press release, entitled ‘Sexually-active gay men vulnerable to new, highly infectious bacteria’ was based on a study due to be published in the February 19th issue of Annals of Internal Medicine and was focused on a recently-identified strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) that is resistant to most types of antibiotic, and which appears to be more prevalent in gay men in San Francisco than in the general population. Aidsmap.com reported on the study last Tuesday.
The UCSF press release was picked up by newspapers around the world, leading to some confusing and homophobic headlines, some of which suggested that this strain of MRSA was a ‘gay disease’ or a ‘new HIV’.
It also provided ammunition for anti-gay groups, including the conservative Concerned Women for America, which issued its own press release on Wednesday, entitled, 'Epidemic feared - 'gays' may spread deadly staph infection to general population.'
In addition, many of the news stories contained alarmist misinformation about the ease of the spread of this so-called ‘superbug’, also failing to report that it is still usually easily treatable, can be prevented by simple hygiene measures, and is rarely life-threatening.
On Wednesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which helped finance the study, issued a statement of its own, stressing “that the groups of MSM [men who have sex with men] in which these isolates have been described are not representative of all MSM, so conclusions cannot be drawn about the prevalence of these strains among all MSM. The groups studied in this report may share other characteristics or behaviours that facilitate spread of MRSA, such as frequent skin-to-skin contact.”
They also noted that, “MRSA is typically transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which occurs during a variety of activities, including sex. There is no evidence at this time to suggest that MRSA is a sexually-transmitted infection in the classical sense.”
On Friday, the UCSF Department of Public Affairs issued a brief statement: “We regret that our recent news report about an important population-based study on MRSA USA300 with public health implications contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading,” it said.
“We deplore negative targeting of specific populations in association with MRSA infections or other public health concerns, and we will be working to ensure that accurate information about the research is disseminated to the health community and the general public.”
The same day, the website of US news magazine, Newsweek ran a major story, entitled “A New ‘Gay Disease’?” about the study and the world’s reaction to it, and quoted one of the study’s authors, Dr Henry (Chip) Chambers, who stated bluntly, "This is definitely not the new AIDS."