Gay men vulnerable to infectious MRSA superbug bacteria

Sexually active gay men are many times more likely than others to acquire a new, highly antibiotic-resistant strain of the so-called MRSA bacteria widely know as the “superbug,” a UCSF-led study shows.

The study is based on review of medical records from outpatient clinics in San Francisco and Boston as well as nine of 10 medical centers serving San Francisco, and appears in the “Annals of Internal Medicine.”

The bacteria appear to be transmitted most easily through intimate sexual contact, but can spread through casual skin-to-skin contact or contact with contaminated surfaces. The scientists are concerned that it could also soon gain ground in the general population.

The new strain of bacteria is closely related to the MRSA bacteria that have spread beyond hospital borders in recent years and caused outbreaks of severe skin and other infections. But the newly discovered microbe is resistant to many more front-line antibiotics. Both strains are technically known as MRSA USA300.

Like its less antibiotic-resistant sibling, the new multi-drug resistant microbe spreads easily through skin-to-skin contact, invading skin and tissue beneath the skin. Both strains cause abscesses and ulcerations that can progress rapidly to life-threatening infections.

“These multi-drug resistant infections often affect gay men at body sites in which skin-to-skin contact occurs during sexual activities,” says Binh Diep, PhD, UCSF postdoctoral scientist at San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center and lead author of a report on the finding. “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.”

A good scrubbing with soap and water may be the most effective way to prevent skin-to-skin contact transmission, especially after sexual activities, Diep says.

The scientists did not address the cause of the increased risk among gay men, but suspect that sexual risk behaviors play a significant role.

The study was largely funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a Pfizer grant.

Source: University of California, San Francisco, USA

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