by Bob Roehr
Research from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) documenting the spread of the USA300 strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) among gay males in San Francisco and Boston is not homophobic, but the same cannot be said of subsequent promotion and media coverage of that research.
San Francisco activist Michael Petrelis was among the first to raise his voice in criticism. He called the UCSF press release on the journal article “alarming,” and noted in an email to UCSF press contact Wallace Ravven, “You went out of your way to mention, four times, that gay men are not considered by UCSF to be members of the general population.”
Within hours of receiving the complaint, the UCSF press office issued a statement expressing regrets that their initial release “contained some information that could be interpreted as misleading. We deplore negative targeting of specific populations in association with MRSA infections or other public health concerns.” It pledged to do a better job.
Ravven sent his own apology to Petrelis, which was posted on the activist’s blog. He explained, “The distinction that the release appeared to make between the gay population and the general population stems from epidemiological language, which includes everyone–gays, straights, etc.–in the ‘general population.’ But this clearly was not the context in which it appeared, which was unclear and unfortunate.”
Binh Diep, 29, the post-doctoral researcher who was the lead author of the paper, expressed his “regret having made the statement regarding a potential spread of the new multidrug resistant strain of USA300 into the ‘general population.’ I deeply apologize for this offensive jargon as men who have sex with men are part of the general population,” he wrote in an email exchange with this reporter.
“I truly regret that my mistake has stood in the way of our community standing together to fight this MRSA epidemic. I hope that you can help me in communicating my deepest apology to the community” so that “we can work together to raise awareness that MRSA is a preventable disease. Soap and water is the cornerstone of disease prevention.”
The San Francisco Chronicle set the tone for much of the media coverage with an article released online just moments after the embargo was lifted and results of the paper could be made public. The Bay Area Reporter, in an editorial, said the tone of that coverage “instantly brought back memories of when health officials reported that HIV rates in the city were on par with those in sub-Saharan Africa, which hardly turned out to be the case.”
Because of its location and the fact that it was first out of the gate, the Chronicle story set the tone for much of the subsequent media coverage. The widely distributed Associated Press story was basically a rewrite of the Chronicle article.
The New York Times article led with a sensationalist focus on the “flesh-eating” potential for the MRSA strain and its spread “most easily through anal intercourse.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tried to calm the waters in a statement issued on January 16. “The strains of MRSA described [in the paper] have mostly been identified in certain groups of men who have sex with men (MSM), but have also been found in some persons who are not MSM. It is important to note that the groups of MSM in which these isolates have been described are not representative of all MSM, so conclusions can not be drawn about the prevalence of these strains among all MSM.”
A few days later another Times reporter wrote at length about the controversy the study and the media coverage had generated. It seemed to be a bit of a mea culpa from the gray lady and provided balance and context lacking in the earlier article.
The Chronicle has so far turned a deaf ear to community concerns over its coverage of the story.