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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Health departments are tracking a new type of staph infection. It's resistant to even more antibiotics than the drug-resistant staph that has spread from coast to coast over the past seven years. So far, most cases, but not all, have been in gay men.

NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX: So far, the new super resistant staph that's infected hundreds of people, almost entirely within certain communities…

(Soundbite of phone rings)

Unidentified Man: Fenway Community Health, how may I help you?

KNOX: …such as the gay community of Boston, which depends heavily on the Fenway Community Health Center. Dr. Steve Boswell is its president.

Doctor STEVE BOSWELL (President, Fenway Community Health Center): We initially saw just a few sporadic cases, but over a period of 18 to 24 months, the number of cases climbed significantly.

KNOX: Currently, cases show up regularly.

Dr. BOSWELL: We see a case or two a week pretty easily.

KNOX: But it's not just in Boston. Gay men in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York are also getting serious infections with the new staph variant. A few have even died. It's related to the strain that's shown up in schools, prisons and athletic teams around the country, but it's resistant to even more antibiotics. Boswell says the new variant also causes more virulent skin infections.

Dr. BOSWELL: They grow much more rapidly. Hours can often make a difference.

KNOX: But antibiotics that doctors often use to treat resistance staph, such as Clindamycin, don't work against this bug, so precious time is lost.

Dr. BOSWELL: That delay, which can often be days, and in some cases, even weeks, can result in significant compromise of the patient — in some cases, even death.

KNOX: An article in the Annals of Internal Medicine documents spread of the new staph. Author Binh An Diep says the bacterium, a variant of the more common strain called USA-300, has made striking inroads in some places.

Mr. BINH AN DIEP (Epidemiologist): About 20 percent of gay men in San Francisco, and it seems to be more in Boston, up to 50 percent of gay men in Boston are infected with this more-difficult-to-treat form of USA-300.

KNOX: Not all gay men, just gay men with staph infections. Still, the incidence of the new variant is alarmingly high in some communities, 13 times higher in San Francisco's heavily gay Castro district and surrounding ZIP codes than in the city's general population. That concentration — and the fact that many infections appear on the buttocks and genital region — lead researchers to think the new staph is being spread through sexual contact. And that leads some to worry this new infection could stigmatize gay men once again.

Mr. DIEP: We are worried about the fact that this could be taken to mean that this is another gay man plague. That's really not what we want to push forth here. I think there's a message of hope that just, you know, soap and water is the best defense against community acquired MRSA infection and USA-300.

KNOX: Even so, experience suggests the more resistant staph won't stay confined to the gay community.

Mr. DIEP: Because USA-300 and other Staph aureus are so easily spread — just through contact transmission — we don't think that it will be restricted to the men-who-have-sex-with-men population, but that it will spread into the general population.

KNOX: Already, the new variant has been found in an 81-year-old woman in New York City.

Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

BLOCK: You can find answers to commonly asked questions about drug-resistant staph infections at npr.org/yourhealth.

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