Specific strain of staph infections more common among gay men, study finds

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 | 8:02 p.m. CST; updated 1:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — An antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infection is more common among men who have sex with men, according to a study to be published in the Annals of Internal Medicine Magazine.

The study was conducted from 2004 to 2006, primarily in San Francisco, but it used some subjects from Boston for comparative purposes. The study was funded by the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-San Francisco, Pfizer and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How to avoid MRSA

Good hygiene is the best way to avoid MRSA infections, said Deidre Wood, a spokeswoman for the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health. She listed a few other preventative measures: • If you get a cut, keep it covered. • Don’t touch wounds on other people. • Don’t share personal items such as towels and razors. • If you work out in a gym, make sure to wipe down any exercise machines before and after use.

The study, which will appear in the Feb. 19 volume of the magazine, suggests that homosexual men are more likely than the general population to be infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a medicine-resistant strain of the more commonly known staph infection.

The medicine-resistant super bug isn’t new, said William Salzer, director of Infectious Diseases at University Hospital. The bacteria colonizes on our skin and in our noses but doesn’t become problematic unless it breaches natural barriers, such as skin or mucus linings, he said.

Staph infections traditionally were more common in hospitals than in the general community because they tend to prey on people who are already sick or wounded. But that has begun to change as MRSA appears in otherwise healthy people who have never taken antibiotics nor been hospitalized.

The medical community has known about the prevalence of MRSA infections in the gay community for years, Salzer said, but the San Francisco study shows that MRSA infections are becoming a more statistically significant problem.

Study leader Binh Diep of the University of California-Berkeley School of Public Health, said it makes sense that MRSA infections would be transmitted during sexual activity because there is more skin-to-skin contact than during casual interaction. Although his study shows that MRSA infections are more prevalent in areas where gay men live, he acknowledged that some cases of heterosexual transmission of MRSA have been reported.

“Although multidrug resistant MRSA can spread through casual skin-to-skin contact or contact with contaminated surfaces, the prevalence of these difficult-to-treat infections are currently low in the general population,” Diep said.

MRSA infections are resistant to some but not all antibiotics, Wood said. Those who think they have an infection should go to their nearest health-care provider to develop a strategy for dealing with it. MRSA initially appears as red bumps similar to pimples. Left untreated, the sores will become swollen and filled with pus.

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