Staph Infection Coverage Generates Gay Health Hysteria

After an outcry by gay activists and a pointed editorial in the Bay Area Reporter, a queer weekly newspaper, UCSF apologized for a recent press release about a new study claiming that gay men were disproportionately more likely to contract a new strain of drug-resistant staphylococcus through anal sex. But while UCSF officials have backpedaled, the San Francisco Chronicle has not.

Last month the Chronicle published a front-page story by medical writer Sabin Russell ("S.F. gay community an epicenter for new strain of virulent staph") about the UCSF-led staph study that some Castro residents say caused widespread alarm and unnecessarily stigmatized gay men. Critics say the Chronicle story sensationalized the report on drug-resistant staph infections by describing a single case in New York in which a "flesh-eating bacteria" had damaged a patient's groin tissue. Researcher and lead report author Binh An Diep was quoted describing the Castro as the epicenter of a "national problem," and that the staph infection will peak when it "spreads into the general population."

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the Chron's coverage has been gay activist and blogger Michael Petrelis. "I'm really tired of gay health equaling hysteria, and this is just another example of that pattern," he says. "If anyone can go to that Sabin Russell story and find a single balancing voice, I'll eat it in front of the Chronicle building."

This wouldn't be Petrelis' first clash with the Chron. Five or six years ago, his feuds with the paper's reporters over their HIV/AIDS coverage earned him restraining orders and jail time for making threats. Petrelis bills himself as a kinder, gentler gay activist these days who channels his dissent into his blog. And no matter what you think of him, he raises a reasonable question: Why hasn't the Chron written about the controversy surrounding the staph study? "I'd like to see the Chronicle do a follow-up story about the reaction in the gay community, but I'm not holding my breath," Petrelis says. "That Sabin Russell is just a UCSF stenographer."

Russell, who is attending an AIDS conference in Boston this week, replied in an e-mail to SF Weekly, "I don't think Michael Petrelis speaks for anyone but himself. As for not responding to the UCSF 'retraction' — that was a clarification of a press release, not a retraction of the article. If UCSF retracts the [research] paper, that would be news."

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