Should scientists bend over and take it?

In an earlier post, I worried that we were repeating the mistakes of the AIDS epidemic by allowing political correctness to stand in the way of the facts. At issue is a study of MRSA, which indicated that a nasty, drug-resistant form of the bug was spreading among gay men, possibly through sexual contact. You don’t have to be gay to get it, but you’re 16 times more like to have it if you happen to be a man who happens to have sex with other men.

When the study by scientists at UCSF was first published, the university put out a press release headlined: “Sexually active gay men vulnerable to new, highly infectious bacteria”. The phrase that drew ire from gay rights campaigners such as Michael Petrelis, Chris Cain, Jim Burroway and even Andrew Sullivan was this: “The scientists are concerned that [the bacteria] could also soon gain ground in the general population.” To me, this is at worst laziness on the part of the press office: they didn’t translate the nerds’ epi-shorthand (general population = everyone not in the sub-population we’re looking at) into poltically correct press-release speak. But to some in the gay community it was “toxic and homophobic”.

The storm has now sloshed over the edge of the tea-cup and may drown out decent science. UCSF has issued a revised press release under the headline “New multi-drug-resistant bacteria emerge in U.S. cities on both coasts”. Gay men don’t make an apperance until the second paragraph, and the suggestion that the bug could be sexually transmitted doesn’t make an appearance at all. I am shocked that the epidemiologists at UCSF allowed this revisionism. They did good work, and the results of that work suggest gay guys may need help in preventing staph. They are doing the gay community as well as themselves a disservice by kicking the dirt over their findings.

San Francisco’s Department of Public Health is a model of pragmatism, collecting and analysing data with dispassionate objectivity, and then getting on with putting necessary programmes in place with a minimum of fuss. But even they are pussy-footing around the MRSA issue.

It strikes me that if there is one thing that is likely to increase homophobia, it is another unpleasant, communicable disease spreading widely among gay men. But it’s not inevitable. With staph as with any communicable disease, the earlier we start prevention efforts, the easier it will be to control. So instead of arguing about it, wouldn’t it be smarter to start doing something about it?

This post was published on 25/01/08 in Ideology and HIV, The sex trade.

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