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January 18, 2008

New strain of resistant bacteria hits gay men

San Francisco--Gay men in San Francisco and Boston are in the first wave of infections of a new strain of staph infection that can resist more than one antibiotic, doctors warn.

The new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, or through contact with an object bearing the bacteria, in addition to being spread sexually.

In addition to its resistance to methicillin, it also not affected by tetracycline, clindamycin and mupirocin, three other antibiotics used to battle infection.

The findings were released in a January 14 study in Annals of Internal Medicine, which found that gay men in San Francisco were 13 times more likely to contract the MRSA infection than their heterosexual counterparts, and that one in 588 residents of the Castro has contracted it, compared to one in 3,800 people in the rest of the city.

The study notes that it is more prevalent in men who engage in high-risk behaviors, on whom symptomatic abscesses and inflammations are most often found on the buttocks, penis and perineum.

One of the study’s authors note that preventing infection is not difficult.

"Taking a shower after sexual contact may minimize contamination," Dr. Chip Chambers, director of infectious diseases at San Francisco General Hospital, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Ordinary soap will do. It dilutes the concentration of bacteria. You don't need antibacterial soap."

MRSA has haunted hospitals for decades since first emerging in Britain.

The bacterium is easily transmissible through sex, although its most common form of transmission is in hospitals, where a lapse in a medical professional’s hygiene could transmit the bacteria from patient to patient.

Increasingly, however, MRSA has been found outside of the medical setting.

Last year, outbreaks in schools across the country caused widespread panic among parents.

The Pike County, Ky. school district shuttered 23 schools and ordered them to be disinfected after a student came down with the infection, and students in Virginia and New York died in October. Several students in the San Francisco area also had cases of MRSA last fall.

Also in October, the Cincinnati Public Schools confirmed five or six cases of MRSA infection in a single week.

The bacteria find warm, moist areas especially inviting, whether on a human body or in a locker room. Humans can carry the bacteria on their skin without showing symptoms, but MRSA will take any avenue to get into the body, including through mucus membranes and small cuts or scrapes.

While it is unsure what antibiotics still work to combat this strain of MRSA, prevention is far simpler than cure. Doctors say that using condoms during sex, showering after sex and washing hands regularly throughout the day can drastically cut back on the risk of contracting MRSA.

Staph infections often appear first as raised red dots, which can swell and fill with pus if untreated.

The resistant strain can also cause abscesses, skin ulcers, pneumonia, blood infection and necrotizing fasciitis, from which comes its popular name, “flesh-eating bacteria.”

In 2005, almost 19,000 people in the United States died from MRSA infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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