The case for neonatal circumcision

Imagine if we could save lives from a dread and often fatal disease simply by performing a minor surgical procedure. People would hail this simple victory and rush to adopt it… Not exactly. The disease is HIV and the simple surgical procedure is circumcision and anti-circ activists oppose it under almost any circumstances.

In this month’s edition of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Tobian, Gray and Quinn present a compelling case for neonatal circumcision. The paper is entitled Male Circumcision for the Prevention of Acquisition and Transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections. The authors report:

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) male circumcision policy states that while there are potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision, the data are insufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. Since 2005, however, 3 randomized trials have evaluated male circumcision for prevention of sexually transmitted infections. The trials found that circumcision decreases human immunodeficiency virus acquisition by 53% to 60%, herpes simplex virus type 2 acquisition by 28% to 34%, and human papillomavirus prevalence by 32% to 35% in men. Among female partners of circumcised men, bacterial vaginosis was reduced by 40%, and Trichomonas vaginalis infection was reduced by 48%. Genital ulcer disease was also reduced among males and their female partners. These findings are also supported by observational studies conducted in the United States. The AAP policy has a major impact on neonatal circumcision in the United States. This review evaluates the recent data that support revision of the AAP policy to fully reflect the evidence of long-term health benefits of male circumcision.

The AAP had long recommended male circumcision for prevention of urinary tract infections in young boys, but backed down in 1999, partly in response to pressure from anti-circumcision activists. According to

Based on a review of medical and psychological literature and our own research and experience, we conclude that circumcision causes serious, generally unrecognized harm and is not advisable.

Anti-circ activists have employed inflammatory language to express their opinion. Circumcision is “mutilation” and parents who choose to circumcise their sons are “mutilators”. But the benefits of circumcision are real and clinically important. As Tobian, et al. explain:

The biological mechanisms whereby circumcision could reduce viral STIs may be due to anatomic and/or cellular factors. The foreskin is retracted over the shaft during intercourse and this exposes the preputial mucosa to vaginal and cervical fluids.61 It has been hypothesized that viral infections may enter the mucosa through microtears in the preputial mucosa. The moist subpreputial cavity may also provide a favorable environment for viral survival. The inner mucosa of the foreskin is lightly keratinized compared with the epithelium of the shaft, coronal sulcus, and glans, which may facilitate mucosal access of HIV, HSV-2, or HPV. The mucosa of the foreskin also contains a high density of dendritic (Langerhans) cells, macrophages, and CD4_ T cells, which are all targets of HIV …

Anti-circ activists are convinced that circumcision reduces sexual satisfaction. Until recently, it was difficult to study that claim because very few men were circumcised after becoming sexually active, making it almost impossible to determine the sensory effect of circumcision. But recent studies make it clear that sexual satisfaction is not affect by circumcision:

… [T]here were no reported differences in sexual satisfaction in the randomized study arms in either the Ugandan or Kenyan male circumcision trials or among men before and after they were circumcised. In addition, it has been hypothesized that behavioral disinhibition may counteract any protective effects of male circumcision. However, there was no consistent or substantial evidence of change in sexual behavior after circumcision in the Kenyan or Ugandan randomized controlled trials.

Tobian et al. call on the AAP to revise its policy to reflect the latest scientific evidence:

The World Health Organization/Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS has concluded that “the research evidence that male circumcision is efficacious in reducing sexual transmission of HIV from women to men is compelling … and has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.” In 2007, the American Urological Association revised their policy to state that “circumcision should be presented as an option for health benefits.” However, the AAP, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and American Medical Association are likely to have the greatest influence on parental decisions and insurance coverage for neonatal circumcision in the United States. With the mounting evidence that male circumcision decreases viral STIs, genital ulcer disease, and penile inflammatory disorders in men, and bacterial vaginosis, T vaginalis infection, and genital ulcer disease in their female partners, it is time for the AAP policy to fully reflect these current data.

The AAP should heed the authors’ call.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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