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The MRSA Scare: Why Health Care is a Queer Issue

MRSA and VRE are strands of the staph bacteria resistant to most antibiotics and this bacteria seems to appear 13-times more often among gay men in San Francisco. The bacteria also seems to be spreading among gay communities in Boston, LA and New York. This disproportionate rate of bacterial infections coincides with a rising rates of STDs such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and HIV in major urban areas.

According to the study, it is unknown what sexual acts are causing the higher rates of infection. The study says:
It is not clear whether the behavior potentiating these infections among men who have men is anal abrading sexual practices or increased frequency of skin to skin contact; prevention messages may therefore need to suggest caution in each of these practices (p. 256).
In fact, the researchers are not even aware of whether or not these practices are the result of all sexual practices or specific "unsafe sexual risk behaviors." Even if we don't know all the details, we need to be proactive. Venues that promote sexual behavior need to be in contact with health specialists in order to inform patrons about how to protect themselves. Bathhouses and online hookup sites, in particular, should stay on top of developments.

Yet, the spectre of drug resistant bacteria has been looming for years and people, including parents in those oh-so-wholesome nuclear families, have been repeatedly warned about overuse of antibiotics. So those obnoxious right-wingers who claim that gay men are to blame for the spread of resistant bacteria also need to look behind their own precious white picket fences for the root of the problem.

Matt Barber of Concerned Women for America can shriek about the consequences of "the homosexual lifestyle" "spilling over into the population," all he wants. But, in reality, MRSA "spilled over into the population" as a result of bad heath care decisions. MRSA is not specifically transmitted through sex. Other contexts such as contact sports, hospitals and gyms are also high risk. According to one doctor, more attention to disinfection on hospital surfaces could significantly reduce the spread of MRSA. But, the doctor also says, "the expense of extra cleaning can be prohibitive, especially in view of the current preoccupation with hospital budgets..." So a substantial financial commitment to health care is imperative to stemming the tide of the bacteria--something with which Barber is completely unconcerned.

The spread of this resistant bacteria and the fact that gay men may be hit harder shows, once again, that health care is a "queer issue." Gay men's health, and the health of all queer people is not just about personal decisions like "putting on a condom every time." A variety of illnesses and problems plague our communities--and will continue to plague our communities. The sad news that Rev. Irene Monroe was recently diagnosed with breast cancer (a disease that has cut down many talented queer women) underscores this point.

Queer lives depend on a health care system that puts people before profit, so health care needs to become a priority, if not the priority, for queer activism. From the for-profit drug industry (which Mark could tell you more about) to the lack of adequate coverage, our system needs a complete overhaul. The era of quick "pill-fixes" has to end and give rise to more comprehensive, holistic approaches to health care.

Update: Jim Burroway at Box-Turtle Bulletin has an important analysis of the MRSA scare. Apparently, homophobia and sensationalism exaggerated the scope of MRSA's effect on MSMs. Nonetheless, this health scare still points to the need for a reevaluation of our health care system.


Mark D. Snyder said...

I just attended a national health care conference - very few visibly queer people there. No lgbt media present. We've got to get our priorities "straight."

Teresa said...

*sigh* I have a LOT to say about the current health care system, but I agree with you Mark - there needs to be a greater show of visibility of queer folks in health care. (Not to mention a greater LGBTQ media presence)

Also, on the topic of MRSA - you're a heck of a lot more likely to contract it from touching the same subway pole (or doorknob or keyboard at a public computer terminal) as someone who didn't wash their hands after using the toilet.

Don't even get me started on bacteria in healthcare settings, I overheard in the hall last week at work - "Well, if you need some staph for your experiment, we can always go swab some chairs in the ER and save a few bucks!"