Typically, health news is a litany of faux fears. You know what I mean, alarmist stuff that makes it seem like an act of insurance-revoking foolhardiness merely to leave the house without a respirator, a bottle of thermonuclear disinfectant, and a NASA-approved re-entry pod. In a surprising twist, here is a truly alarming bit of bad news that seems to have been, in contrast, glossed over by the press. Researchers in San Francisco have discovered that multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus Aureus infections, also known as MRSA, are transmitted sexually. All I can say is, OMG. First tip-off that this is truly bad news–MRSA is also known as the “superbug.” You’ve probably heard of it because recent estimated numbers of deaths from this germ are greater than those from AIDS. Outbreaks have also made the news, one of which killed a healthy young athlete on the East Coast. So how and why was this new “superbug” information glossed over? Well, first, the headline focused on the fact that the population where sexual transmission has been documented to occur is that of men who have sex with men. Call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure there might be a few health news reporters who then instantly thought, oh well, that’s tragic, but it doesn’t affect me. Perhaps a number of people reading the article felt the same. Unfortunately, as someone who sees a lot of patients with MRSA, I can tell you that staph doesn’t seem to have a special affection for gay men. It’s a pretty promiscuous germ. Give it half a glance and it’s all over you, regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation. It’s been documented to spread among intravenous drug users, high school athletes, and hospitalized patients of all genders, ages and orientations. The fact that it can be spread by having sex is sobering news indeed. The second possible reason why this new information was not blaring from every outlet may be the fact that the study looked at people who are infected with the germ–not how many it is killing. However, another vastly underreported fact is that people who get infected with MRSA can remain relatively healthy, but will often break out in boils all over their body. This form of MRSA infection is a source of unending misery and pain and deformity that is so extreme, it seems medieval. Here is how Reuters mis-reported this horror: “This superbug can cause life-threatening and disfiguring infections and can often only be treated with expensive, intravenous antibiotics.” Um. No. If you are walking around with MRSA “disfiguring infections,” there is no fancy intravenous antibiotic (no matter how expensive) that is documented to stop the boils that constantly form and erupt. Surgical (i.e. painful) drainage of large boils is the cornerstone of treatment and eradicating the germ is anything but easy. Which leads to what may be the third reason this news didn’t make the big time–so what can anyone do with this information? Well, the researchers reported that staph can live around the anus. Hang on a sec, before you join in the “well, that doesn’t apply to me” crowd, here’s another bit of sobering reality: staph doesn’t draw a line in the crotch and refuse to cross it. There is no magical circle around your anus, keeping the staph germs corralled nearby. Whenever anyone has sex, there tends to be a fair amount of what can only be delicately described as “scrubbing around.” In what seems to be, at best, wishful thinking in the absence of data, the researchers are reported by Reuters to have said that “the best way to avoid infection is by washing the hands or genitals with soap and water.” Excuse me? Sure, washing hands has been shown to reduce MRSA transmission when a healthcare provider is briefly touching patients one after the other in a hospital setting. But to think this approach might work between sexual partners in continuous contact with each other is more than a bit optimistic. Future sexual encounters–”Before I shake you hand, if you could just step into my NASA-approved thermonuclear disinfecting pod? Please position your anal area over the spray nozzle.” Forget the social issues–if only it were this simple to stop community spread of MRSA, we’d be hosing down people right and left.
Bottom (pardon the pun) line: More partners=more risk, and now there’s even more at stake. And if you’re sexually active, no matter what your sexual orientation (or practices) and you’re thinking this health news doesn’t apply to you, I’m afraid you’ve got your head up your [staph colony location].
Image courtesy of 3DScience.com