To circumcise or not. A loaded subject to be sure. The practice of male circumcision is ancient, likely far older than the biblical account of Abraham in Genesis. The Jewish faith, but not that of the Greeks or Romans, routinely recommended circumcision of newborn males. In the past century, it became “medicalized” as a preventative procedure only to be debunked in the last decade. Well, it may be now a procedure on the rise once again.
Circumcision is the removal of some or all of the foreskin or prepuce from the penis. The august American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend that circumcision is medically unnecessary, that it lacks any proven benefit, and that it should not be performed routinely in neonates. Maybe that is why the incidence of neonatal circumcision in the U.S. has continued to decline, from 80% in the 1960’s to 60% in 1996, to 55% of boys in 2001.
Why should circumcision be avoided? Issues of neonatal pain, behavioral changes and the potential for loss of sexual sensitivity from removal of the prepuce are age-old arguments for its discontinuation. However, a military study showing that there is a higher rate of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in non-circumcised boys and the fact that penile cancer tends to occur almost exclusively in uncircumcised men has kept the procedure alive and well.
In a somewhat radical departure from earlier recommendations, public health officials are now arguing that circumcision of men is a key weapon in the fight against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in Africa. Three recent, large, controlled studies have shown that circumcision reduces infection rates by 50 to 60% among heterosexual African. These studies stem from 3 different parts of the continent: South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya. In fact, two of the three clinical trials were stopped early because of overwhelmingly positive results. Experts now estimate that more than 3 million lives could be saved in sub-Saharan Africa alone if the procedure becomes widely used. And there is more recent data showing that the incidence of Herpes virus and HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) may also be reduced in circumcised men.
How circumcision prevents HIV transmission is not completely understood, but it is believed that the foreskin acts as a reservoir for HIV-containing secretions, increasing the contact time between the virus and target cells in the foreskin.
The problem with HIV and circumcision is that it is much more than a simple “behavior-based” intervention and this may ultimately be its biggest obstacle to wide acceptance. Changing social mores and behavior is one thing, but the “cold, hard steel” aspect of this public health initiative may not survive in the long run. If you don’t live in Africa, a clean penis and a clean life may be all that’s needed to replace the knife.