Making the Cut: Is It Time To Put the Circumcision Debate To Rest?

Should we advocate for the procedure to improve global health?

Published on December 11, 2012by Larkin Callaghan
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Circumcision is not a new practice by any means. It is well known as a religious practice in many communities. But its implementation for public health purposes has been controversial. Raising ethical concerns and questions of tractable population health impact, the procedure has gained increasing attention in the past couple of years as it treads on unprecedented ground—surgery for the prevention of infectious disease.

Research in support of circumcision as a protective measure against the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is mounting, countering concerns of its potential risks. Most recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially articulated that the health benefits outweigh the risks.

The circumcision debate turns largely on biological, behavioral, and relational factors.

Biologically speaking, the foreskin is the ideal environment for bacterial and viral infections to flourish. Heat and lack of oxygen facilitate the growth of pathogens. When the inner foreskin is retracted during heterosexual intercourse, for example, it is exposed to the vaginal secretions of a female partner, which if carrying HIV and other sexually transmitted infections easily fosters transmission. A 2009 study indicated that the greater the size—and therefore surface of—the foreskin, the higher the incidence of HIV in an infected male, underscoring how it can be a breeding ground for the virus.

A recent study conducted by Dr. Ronald Gray of Johns Hopkins University, in which researchers followed Ugandan adult study participants after a circumcision intervention, showed that the subsequent risk of acquiring HIV was reduced for the 40-month follow-up period. In addition, circumcision decreased the viral load of high-risk human papillomavirus—the strains that can cause penile, cervical and anal cancers—in men.

Other studies have shown significant reductions in bacteria after circumcision, which also benefits the female partners of the men. Adverse events or complications appear to be rare in both HIV-positive and HIV-negative men who undergo the procedure, with one study documenting moderate-to-severe complications occurring between 3-4 percent of men regardless of HIV-status.

Behavior change also features prominently in the circumcision debate. Opponents of circumcision express concerns that the procedure may contribute to a perception of immunity against HIV and result in the reduction of condom use. Additionally, there is a question of whether or not it may increase the number of sex partners one has, for the same reason of rationalizing post-surgery invincibility.

Many circumcision intervention studies are not so cut and dry, so to speak. A number contain significant education components, which makes the procedure’s contribution to HIV risk reduction less clear.

One study examined the length of time men who had undergone circumcision waited before engaging in sexual activity. If a man HIV-positive, the risk of infecting a partner is notably higher if he engages in sexual activity before the wound heals, highlighting the importance of the quality of the surgery to minimize healing complications and the importance of concurrent education to delay sexual activity. Since a 2008 study showed that after 30 days, 73% of HIV-positive men had healed wounds, compared to 83% of HIV-negative men (the discrepancy owing to greater time HIV-positive individuals may take for any kind of wound healing), this is of particular importance.

It seems that being married, not single, might diminish concerns about the length of time it takes wounds to heal. There was no statistically significant difference in time waited to engage in sex post-surgery between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men who were married; nearly 28 percent and 29 percent, respectively, engaged before the wound healed, which is the single greatest cause of post-procedure complications. However, among single men, roughly 13 percent of HIV-positive men resumed sex before their wound was fully healed, compared to about 6 percent of HIV-negative men.

The significant difference between the single HIV-positive men and the single HIV-negative men underscores the potential for altered beliefs about post-circumcision HIV transmission. However, HIV-positive men reported more sexual partners and less consistent condom use than the HIV-negative men throughout the study—itself underscoring the difficulty of risky behavior change. Encouragingly, condom use among HIV-positive men increased over the course of the study.

The relational impacts of circumcision have also been examined. Researchers have assessed the perceptions and opinions of the women in relationships with those who have undergone the surgery. A 2009 study indicated that women whose male partners were circumcised were either more sexually satisfied than they had been previously, or felt no difference. Thirty-nine percent of women indicated more satisfaction, 57 percent noted no change, and less than 3 percent said they were less satisfied than they had been when their partners were uncircumcised. The greater satisfaction, according to the women, was primarily attributed to better hygiene.

These results are important, as one of biggest issues around circumcision is “the sell.” The best way to make that sell, researchers argue, is to have the female partners articulate their preference for and encouragement of circumcision to their male partners. It appears that there may also be a generational difference in the acceptance and uptake of the procedure. Dr. Gray and his colleagues have found that adolescent males disproportionately access circumcision procedures. Even some fathers who encouraged circumcision in their sons refused the procedure themselves.

Precautions are of course essential. Research has shown that it takes practitioners approximately 100 circumcision procedures before they can be considered adept at performing the surgery.

And not all the research being done has produced promising results, specifically for women. While some studies suggest that HIV-discordant couples—HIV-negative woman and HIV-positive man—benefit from circumcision and the procedure prevents infection of the woman, other studies have produced conflicting results.

Biologically, the circumcision seems to benefit primarily men in preventing the contraction of HIV from an HIV-positive female partner. The same is not necessarily true for HIV-negative women whose male partners are HIV-positive. This biologically higher risk of infection for women is well known among public health researchers. Of course, decreasing the prevalence of HIV-positive men will ultimately, in the long run, help to lower the HIV incidence in women.

Indeed, population health benefits are already emerging. Dr. Gray and colleagues showed earlier this year that in Uganda, 37 percent of the reduction in HIV incidence could be attributed to circumcision, since there was no change in risk behaviors. The impact was not observed in women.

Circumcision seems to make economic sense. The male circumcision procedure costs $30-$60 in adults, and $5-$10 in infants. For each HIV infection avoided due to five to 15 male circumcisions performed, the savings reach well into the billions of dollars with the assumptions of a $150-$900 cost per infection (depending on HIV incidence in a specific region) over the next ten years.

Critics of course remain, and most vocally claim that other strategies, like education and behavior change, are viable solutions that should be championed. Regarding the sustained HIV epidemic and the hopeful strategies of condom use, testing, and treatment, Dr. Gray himself remarked, “I don’t know how to change behavior, I wish I did.”

So while behavior change strategies are perhaps the most important intervention to counter the HIV epidemic, they are not the only effective HIV interventions. The evidence seems to indicate that voluntary circumcision also makes the cut as a contender in the global fight against HIV.

Edited by Dana March. Additional research by Josh Brooks.