Male Circumcision: A Dangerous Mistake in the HIV Battle

Male Circumcision: A Dangerous Mistake in the HIV Battle by Intact America 

Mass male circumcision is being promoted as a method of curbing the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Stopping the spread of HIV requires using available resources strategically, and circumcision’s costs and harms are too significant to ignore. Mass circumcision campaigns will divert resources from proven prevention programs, result in a high number of complications, increase risk-compensation behaviors, and put women at higher risk for HIV.
Circumcision is an expensive and risky procedure that was shown to reduce risk by 50–60% for heterosexual males only in three highly controlled, short-term clinical trials. However, condom promotion and safe-sex education have already been shown to reduce infection rates more effectively for both males and females, at a lower cost. Furthermore, anti-retroviral drugs have shown a promising 92% reduction in HIV transmission.1
Adult males are vulnerable to the belief that circumcision offers them immunity from HIV,2raising ethical concerns about promoting adult male circumcision, and questions regarding the effectiveness of the intervention.
Some have proposed circumcising infants, but this, too, has ethical ramifications.3 Removing healthy tissue from children deprives them of their right to autonomy. Surgery of any kind places them at immediate risk from complications, while the HIV benefit, if any, is 15–20 years away.
Male circumcision does not protect women;4 in fact, it may increase their risk of contracting HIV.5 Further, circumcision does not protect men who have sex with men.6 7

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HIV and Circumcision Facts to Consider: Circumcised Men Get HIV

HIV and Circumcision Facts to Consider:
Circumcised Men Get HIV, 4pp.
Annotated Bibliography on Circumcision and HIV, 2pp.
Download as PDF
Results from three random control trials (RCTs) done in Africa, which show a reduction in female-to-male transmission of HIV after circumcision, cannot be extrapolated to the real-world settling. Much evidence published recently calls into question the results of these trials, and raises serious doubts about the value of male circumcision in HIV prevention. No field test has been performed to test the theory and analyze the effectiveness, cost, and complications. To roll out a new program based on scant evidence, implying to the African public that circumcision will reduce a male’s chances of contracting HIV by 50–60 percent, is not only inconclusive [Mills], but misleading [Garenne]. Coercing adults, and forcing infants to be circumcised is unethical. Increased condom promotion and safe sex campaigns will accomplish much higher infection-frequency reduction.
Other Medical Organizations Concur
The Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations (AFAO) agrees. The AFAO issued a briefing paper: “Male Circumcision Has No Role in the Australian HIV Epidemic” (July, 2007). The key points were: no demonstrated benefit of circumcision in men who have sex with men; consistent condom use, not circumcision, is the most effective means of reducing female-to male transmission, and vice-versa; and African data on circumcision is context-specific and cannot be extrapolated to the Australian epidemic in any way. The paper compared Australia to America by concluding: “The USA has a growing heterosexual epidemic and very high rates of circumcision. Circumcision does not prevent HIV—in high prevalence areas it reduced the risk of female-to-male transmission. HIV acquisition rates were nevertheless high in both the circumcised and the non-circumcised groups involved in the trials.
The French Consiel National du SIDA issued a report to clarify the issues following the mass media reporting, and misreporting, of the three African RCTs. “The studies are generating debate among the scientific community and are also raising a number of questions with regard to its implementation and role in terms of public health strategy. Implementation of male circumcision as part of a raft of preventative measures could destabilise health care delivery and at the same time confuse existing prevention messages. The addition of a new ‘tool’ could actually cause a result opposite to that which was originally intended” [Rozenbaum].
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ policy statement on circumcision could not recommend circumcision to help stop the epidemic: “How much circumcision could contribute to ameliorate the current epidemic of HIV is uncertain” [Beasley].
Questions concerning study results
A number of confounding factors present in the study make it very difficult to generalize the results to the larger world population. All three studies were terminated after only 21-24 months, over 700 participants were lost to follow up, there HIV status unknown (4.5 times more participants were lost to follow up than were reported to have been protected from HIV by circumcision), study participants were provided free condoms and extensive education and counseling, a number of reported HIV infections were contracted from non-sexual means, and the participants were paid to be circumcised. These atypical conditions will not be present in any mass circumcision campaign.
Circumcision Difficult to Justify
A 2008 analysis of circumcision status and HIV rates concluded that circumcision is NOT associated with reduced HIV infection rates, contrary to claims of circumcision advocates [Garenne].
A meta-analysis of circumcision-related science and the HIV epidemic [Van Howe] showed that the outcome of mass circumcision would not be effective in stopping the spread of the disease, and went on to question researcher’s and promoter’s agendas. The Cochrane Collaboration Report of 2003, only objective systematic review of the use of male circumcision as an HIV prevention conducted to date, cautioned about potential researcher bias stating, “Circumcision practices are largely culturally determined, so there are strong beliefs and opinions surrounding them. It is important to acknowledge that researchers’ personal biases and dominant circumcision practices of their respective countries may influence interpretation of findings.”[Siegfried].
Circumcision Could Increase Risk of HIV
The long-term consequences of promoting circumcision might make the problem worse—by implying that circumcision protects males; it might give them and their partners a false sense of security and undermine safe sex practices and condom usage [Kalichman; Myers; Muula]. Even if the 50-60 percent protective effect the RCTs claim is true, and if all African males were circumcised over the next fifteen years, it would only reduce the number of infection cases there by 8 percent, and related deaths by 1 percent [Williams].
Men having sex with men are not protected from HIV, even if they are circumcised [Templeton]. The role of commercial sex workers and sexual networks has not be adequately addressed in plans to stop the epidemic [Talbott].
A Social Vaccine
Education, safe sex practices, and consistent condom use are proven, effective measures of curbing HIV transmission. Uganda demonstrated a 47 percent reduction in HIV prevalence from increased safe sex education and condom promotion—this “social vaccine” is available now, is highly effective, and does not involve the numerous risks and downsides of surgery [Low-Beer]. Consistent condom use reduces lifetime risk by 20 percent [Hallett], as compared to circumcision’s 8 percent [Williams].
Unethical Medical Practice
Extreme care needs to be taken to ensure that parents aren’t misled into thinking that the results of studies performed on adult African males should be extrapolated to health policy for newborns. It is unprecedented and perhaps unethical for a prophylactic surgery to be offered as a “health benefit” to parents of newborns to reduce risks of an adult acquired disease for which there are safer, less invasive, less expensive, and proven prevention methods available [Somerville; Fox].
Newborns are not sexually active and, therefore, not at risk for sexually contracted diseases. Furthermore, by the time today’s newborns are sexually active, a vaccine or other methods of treating the disease will probably will be available. Today’s newborns might prefer to retain their foreskin and opt, as adults, for vaccination and practicing safe sex practices, including using condoms.
New Data
Circumcision complication rate of 20.2% was found in Nigeria [Okeke]. HIV infections are greater following the circumcision of virgins, both male and female, indicating unsterile conditions [Brewer; Stallings]. Two US studies, released in 2007, found that circumcision made no difference in HIV transmission rates among US males. [Mor; Millett]. Previous mathematical modeling of heterosexual transmission of the virus is based on inflated transmission rates and implausible assumptions [Deuchert].
Recent evidence demonstrates that Langerhans cells in the foreskin have a protective effect against pathogens—including HIV—by secreting Langerin [de Witte]. The previous theory was that Langerhans cells are an entrance point for viruses. It now seems that the theory is partially true, but that the true mechanism at work is that Langerhans cells set a trap for viruses in order to destroy them with Langerin.
Circumcision constitutes the removal of healthy, functional, and biologically unique tissue and is unwarranted for the prevention of HIV [Cold].
The risks and harms of circumcision include:
a. Increased risks of MRSA and other infections in newborns [Annunziato; Donovan; Sauer].
b. Death and severe complications resulting in life-long disability.
c. Sexual side-effects and sensitivity-loss from circumcision [Kim; Sorrells].
d. Psychological consequences including infant analog of PTSD [Taddio], dissociation [Rhinehart], and addictive behaviors [Laumann].

    Annunziato D., Goldblum L. M. (1978). Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome. A complication of circumcision. Am J Dis Child. 132(12):1187-1188.
    Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations. (2007). Male circumcision has no role in the Australian HIV epidemic. Newtown, Australia: Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations.
    Beasley S., Darlow B., Craig J., et al. (2004). Policy Statement on Circumcision. Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Paediatrics & Child Health Division. Sept.
    Brewer D. D., Potterat J. J., Roberts Jr. J. M, et al. (2007). Male and female circumcision associated with prevalent HIV infection in virgins and adolescents in Kenya, Lesotho, and Tanzania. Ann Epidemiol. 17:217-226.
    Cold C.J,, Taylor J. R. (1999). The prepuce. BJU Int. 83Suppl.1:34-44.
    De Witte L., Nabatov A., Pion M., et al. (2007). Langerin is a natural barrier to HIV-1 transmission by Langerhans cells. Nat Med. 13(3):367-371.
    Deuchert E., Brody S. (2007). Plausible and implausible parameters for mathematical modeling of nominal heterosexual HIV transmission. Ann Epidemiol. 17:234-244.
    Fox M. (2005). Thomson M. Short changed: the law and ethics of male circumcision. Int J Children’s Rights. 13:161-181.
    Garenne M. (2006). Male circumcision and HIV control in Africa. PloS Med. 3(1):e78.
    Michel G. (2008). Long-term population effect of male circumcision in generalised HIV epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa. African Journal of AIDS Research. 7(1): 1–8.
    Hallett TB, Gregson S, Lewis JJ, Lopman BA, Garnett GP. Behaviour change in generalised HIV epidemics: impact of reducing cross-generational sex and delaying age at sexual debut. Sex Transm Infect 83 2007;(suppl 1): i50-i54.
    Jacobson B., Bygdeman, M. (1998). Obstetric care and proneness of offspring to suicide as adults: Case-control study. BMJ 317:1346-1349
    Kalichman S., Eaton L., Pinkerton S. (2007). Circumcision for HIV prevention: failure to account for behavioral risk compensation PloS Med. 4(3):e137-138.
    Kim S., Pang M. (2006). The effect of male circumcision on sexuality. BJU Int. 99(3):619-622.
    Kirkpatrick B. V., Eitzman D. V. (1971). Neonatal septicemia after circumcision. Clin Pediatr. 13(9):767-768.
    Laumann E. O,, Masi C, M,, Zuckerman E, W. (1997). Circumcision in the United States. JAMA. 277:1052-1057.
    Low-Beer D, Stoneburner RL. (2004) Behaviour and communication change in reducing HIV: Is Uganda unique? Johannesburg: Centre For Aids Development, Research And Evaluation. 14 p.
    Millett G, Ding H, Lauby J, Flores S, Stueve A, Bingham T, et al. Circumcision Status and HIV Infection Among Black and Latino Men Who Have Sex With Men in 3 US Cities. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 2007;46(5):643-650. (CDC)
    Mills E., Siegfried N. (2006). Cautious optimism for new HIV/AIDS prevention strategies. Lancet. 368:1236.
    Mor Z, Kent CK, Kohn R[, Klausner JD. Declining rates in male circumcision amidst increasing evidence of its public health benefit. PloS ONE. 2007;2(9):e861.
    Muula A. S, Prozesky H. W., Mataya R. H., Ikechebelu J. I. (2007). Prevalence of complications of male circumcision in Anglophone Africa: a systematic review. BMC Urology. 7(4).
    Myers A., Myers J. (2007). Male circumcision-the new hope? S Afr Med J. 97(5):338-341.
    Okeke LI, Asinobi AA, Ikuerowo OS. Epidemiology of complications of male circumcision in Ibadan, Nigeria. BMC Urology. 2006;6:21.
    Rhinehart J. (1999). Neonatal circumcision reconsidered. Transactional Analysis J. 29(3):215-221
    Rozenbaum W., Bourdillon F., Dozon J-P., et al. (2007). Report on male circumcision: An arguable method of reducing the risks of HIV transmission. Conseil National du SIDA. 1-10.
    Siegfried N, Muller M, Volmink J, Deeks J, Egger M, Low N, Weiss H, Walker S, Williamson P. Male circumcision for prevention of heterosexual acquisition of HIV in men (Cochrane Review). In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 3, 2003. Oxford.
    Somerville M. (2000). Altering baby boys’ bodies: The ethics of infant male circumcision. In: The Ethical Canary: Science, Society, and the Human Spirit. New York: Viking.
    Sorrells M. L., Snyder M. L., Reiss M. D, et al. (2007). Fine-touch pressure thresholds in the adult penis. BJU Int. 99:864-869.
    Stallings RY, Karugendo E. Female circumcision and HIV infection in Tanzania: for better or for worse? Third International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis and Treatment. Rio de Janeiro, 25-27 July 2005.
    Talbott J. R. (2007). Size Matters: The number of prostitutes and the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. PloS One. 2(6): e543.
    Templeton D. J., Jin F., Prestage G. P., et al. (2007) Circumcision status and risk of HIV seroconversion in the HIM cohort of homosexual men in Sydney. In 4th Conference on the HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention. 23-25 July 2007. Sydney, Australia: International AIDS Society.
    Van Howe R. S., Svoboda J. S., Hodges F. M. (2005). HIV infection and circumcision: cutting through the hyperbole. J R Soc Health 125(6):259-265.
    Williams B. G., Lloyd-Smith J. O., Gouws E, et al. (2006) The potential impact of male circumcision on HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa. PLoS Med 3:e262.

Circumstitions: HIV


Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline. We may therefore be sorely tempted to misuse that power in furthering a personal prejudice or social goal -- why not provide that extra oomph by extending the umbrella of science over a personal preference in ethics or politics? But we cannot, lest we lose the very respect that tempted us in the first place. ~Stephen Jay Gould Bully for Brontosaurus, pp 429-30



Voodoo science
Circumcision as Nail Soup
"Therefore Carthage must be destroyed"
Flawed studies
 the Random Clinical Tests

Uganda and Kenya
 Number Needed to Treat
South Africa
 Subjects unrepresentative
Relative Risk Ratio misleading
The three studies compared
Confounding factors
Method of circumcision
Loss from study
Non-sexual transmission
Blood-borne transmission
Effect of curtailing the studies
The human factor
The Hawthorne Effect
Other published cautions

Misreported studies

Gray - 3 infections made to look like 255
Warner - statistically insignificant protection of a small subset

Contrary studies

Bailey - no protection to men in Kenya
Connelly - no protection to black South Africans
Auvert - no protection to young South Africans
Gust - no protection to gay men
Grulich - no protection to insertive Australian gay men (though it has been reported as if there is)
Jozkowski - no protection to US gay men
Jameson - no protection to men who have sex with men
Millett - no protection to US Black and Latino men
who have unprotected insertive sex with men
McDaid - no protection to Scottish men
who have sex with men
Wawer - no protection (and maybe increased risk) to women
Turner - no protection to women
Baeten - no protection to women
Chao - greater risk to women
Thomas - no protection in a high-risk population
Shaffer - no protection by traditional circumcision
Mor - no protection to men (weaselly-worded and data-mined to look as if there is)
Thornton - no protection to men who have sex with men in London
Moiti - circumcised youth at greater risk in Uganda
Brewer - circumcised youth at greater risk in Mozambique
Darby - no benefit in Australia 
Two Cochrane Reviews
Where circumcision doesn't prevent AIDS 
Between Correlation and Recommendation
A Vaccine? Hardly!
A Solution Looking For A Problem
the Role of the Mucosa
"Dry Sex"
Female Genital Cutting
Sexual Selection
Wife Inheritance
Heterosexual transmission - Europe vs the United States
A voice of sanity from UNAIDS
A voice of sanity from the Terrence Higgins Trust
A UK survey of gay men that found more circumcised men with HIV

The hazards of unblinded trials
Other studies that show no correlation or a negative correlation
   between intactness and HIV/AIDS

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South African Medical Journal: Questioning Circumcision to 'Prevent' HIV

The South African Medical Journal included the following articles questioning the drive for circumcision, and in particular neonatal circumcision, to ‘prevent’ HIV.

National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers South Africa

Surgically removing foreskins, in the erroneous hope that it will reduce HIV rates is both misguided and unethical. In South Africa we already have large population samples that have been circumcised, such as the Xhosa tribe, yet their HIV rates are no different from tribes that have not been circumcised, such as the Zulu tribe. Using the studies, performed in sterile situations, that do not represent real world settings, to justify circumcision while selectively ignoring real world data that contradicts their findings, is disastrous.

Already circumcision programs have begun throughout Africa, with none having instituted proper follow-up research to monitor the men that they are cutting and their sex partners. This is not an example of evidence-based medicine, and will cause much harm.

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