Thursday, January 17, 2008

Three Gay Editors Question Sensational Staph Stories
Three leading gay journalists today raise crucial questions about the latest sensationalistic mainstream news stories about an alarming, is there any other kind?, gay-related study from UC San Francisco researchers. The study this time is about a strain of drug-resistant staph and sex-crazed homosexuals.
Cynthia Laird, editor at the Bay Area Reporter, makes keen observations in her "Nothing new in staph news" column about the horrendous pattern of UCSF collaborating with the Chron to whip up fear, based on flimsy evidence:
Are the researchers at UCSF so clueless? Did it ever occur to them to think before announcing that sexually active gay men are vulnerable to a new strain of drug resistant staph? And thanks to the San Francisco Chronicle, we awoke to banner headlines Tuesday claiming that the city is "an epicenter" for this "lethal new bacteria" that "spreads from cities with large gay populations." It 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.
Also weighing in from the perspective of this staph story has been covered in the gay press, is Metro Weekly's editor Sean Bugg over at his blog:
So we've all been hearing about the gay outbreak of drug-resistant staph infections, same as we heard about multiple-drug resistant staph infections back in 2003. These kinds of infections have been a problem in medical settings for some time, but when a report comes out that attaches "gay" with "disease," everyone's certain to pay attention. [...]
But I get really pissed when I read quotes like this from the doctor who led the study, Binh Diep: "Once this reaches the general population, it will be truly unstoppable."
Allow me to digress at this point to note that the tone of the offensive quote from Dr. Diep, which could have easily been lifted from a Peter LaBarbera or Concerned Women of America release, is an integral component of the release from the UCSF press office.
If anyone is interested in how the engine of rank sensationalism surrounding the staph headlines and stories was greased, I suggest taking a cold hard look at the announcement from UCSF heralding the study by its researchers.
Written by Wallace Ravven, a longtime UCSF media spokesman, the release, from the first word of the headline, is primed to pitch a story of "sex sells" and reinforces gross misperceptions how gays are supposedly not part of the "general population," a phrase mentioned four times.
UCSF's headline was pure red meat for hungry reporters: "Sexually active gay men vulnerable to new, highly infectious bacteria."
The UCSF release goes out of its way four times to stereotype the sex-crazed homosexual as an "other" who is separate from the larger community:
The scientists are concerned that it could also soon gain ground in the general population. [...]
"But because the bacteria can be spread by more casual contact, we are also very concerned about a potential spread of this strain into the general population." [...]
In a second part of the study based on patient medical charts, the scientists found that sexually active gay men in San Francisco are about 13 times more likely to be infected than the general population. [...]
"The potential widespread dissemination of multi-resistant form of USA300 into the general population is alarming," he adds. [...]
And finally, an associate editor at Gay City News, Duncan Osborne, has sent around his letter to the New York Times, complaining about its coverage of the staph crisis created by UCSF:
Dear New York Times Public Editor:
Your January 15 story, “New Bacteria Strain Is Striking Gay Men,” was a real low point.

Your reporter, Lawrence K. Altman, wrote “the bacteria seemed to be spread most easily through anal intercourse.” The authors of the study did not reach that conclusion. At the very start of the online study, they wrote that “sexual risk behavior was not assessed.” Later, they wrote that MRSA “might be sexually transmitted in this population.”

The authors wrote “Specific sexual behaviors were not assessed or documented in clinic charts; we therefore cannot comment on the association between multidrug-resistant USA300 infection and specific male–male sexual practices.”

The authors also wrote “It is not clear whether the behavior potentiating these infections among men who have sex with men is anal sex (that is, dissemination of rectal carriage of community-associated MRSA), skin-abrading sexual practices, or increased frequency of intimate skin-to-skin contact.”

I question if Altman actually read this study. I do not see how a person can reach the conclusion that Altman reported when the study unambiguously did not support that conclusion.

Altman wrote “The authors warned that unless microbiology laboratories were able to identify the strain and doctors prescribed the proper antibiotic therapy, the infection could soon spread among other groups and become a wider threat.”

In fact, the authors reported that “Infections caused by community-associated, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have become a major public health threat. A single clone of community-associated MRSA, USA300, was not seen before 2000 but is now widely disseminated in 38 U.S. states, Canada, and 9 European Union

The first US outbreaks of this strain were reported in school children, athletes and prisoners. It was only in late 2002 that the first outbreak among gay men, this one in Los Angeles, was reported. Far from being Altman’s modern day Typhoid Mary, gay men are merely the latest population to contend with MRSA.

Contrary to Altman’s assertion, it is common knowledge, certainly among public health experts and journalists who follow public health, that MRSA is widely dispersed in the US. As recently as February of 2007 the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told my newspaper, Gay City News, that this was so.

“USA 300 is the pulse-field type that has become predominant in community associated outbreaks in the United States,” said Dr. Rachel J. Gorwitz, a medical epidemiologist in the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at CDC. “This one pulse-field type appears to have spread across the country.”

“Skin infections lead to an estimated 12 million doctor visits every year and the majority are due to MRSA, with USA 300 being the predominant type, Gorwitz said.” The full story is available here.

Unfortunately, this sort of gays-as-a-public-health-threat rhetoric is typical of reporters of Altman’s generation. This notion that gay men are a reservoir of dangerous bacteria and viruses was implicit in Altman’s reporting on the so called “super HIV” in 2005. I should note that that reporting turned out to be completely wrong and the Times has never bothered to correct those earlier, erroneous stories.

Altman wrote “The new strain seems to have ‘spread rapidly’ in gay populations in San Francisco and Boston, the researchers wrote, and ‘has the potential for rapid, nationwide dissemination.’”

Of course, this has already happened. My paper reported this in 2004. You may read that story here.

In fairness to Altman on this last point, he was merely reporting what the study authors wrote, but this, of course, illustrates the problem with all of Altman’s reporting. He is an adequate translator of scientific research, though this latest story suggests he is no longer capable of that, but he has never shown the skepticism and reporting skills that are the hallmark of good journalism. Indeed, I do not believe that he possesses these.

This latest error-filled story suggests that Altman cannot even be described as a good stenographer.

As a gay man and a journalist, I am offended by Altman’s work and by his continued presence in the pages of the New York Times.

Duncan Osborne


DFV said...

Regardless of who was responsible for what, may people will blow this all out of proportion for their own ends and for stereotyping.

I hope San Francisco will be able to be up to the challenge of a backlash - it certainly proved itself during the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic.

Please read the following. It was my first response, both as a ga man and as a San Franciscan:

Ron Buckmire said...

thanks for covering this.

Anonymous said...

....what is a "Human Rights Activist"?...Are you Pro-Human???