Circumcision urged as way to confine AIDS spread

Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1999

The international public health community could help reduce HIV infection rates in Africa and Asia and potentially save millions of lives by promoting the use of male circumcision there, according to an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Robert Bailey, a professor of epidemiology and anthropology at UIC, said Thursday he has completed research with Daniel Halperin, assistant adjunct professor at the University of California at San Francisco, that indicates African and Asian societies that traditionally do not perform male circumcision want the procedure available in their countries.

Several studies over the last 10 years have shown that male circumcision helps prevent HIV infection, but the international public health community has shied away from pushing the procedure in Africa and Asia over concerns that it would clash with cultural and religious mores in non-circumcising countries.

According to Bailey and Halperin's research, the risk of HIV infection is two to eight times higher for uncircumcised men.

They concluded in their research, which they published in the Nov. 20 edition of the journal The Lancet, that the international public health community should help make the procedure readily available in Asia and Africa.

"What a lot of the older men were telling me is that it's too late for them and their brothers to get circumcision," Bailey said. "But their sons and daughters are still sexually active, and they know it is safer to be circumcised."

Bailey and Halperin looked at 32 studies from eight countries in addition to doing scores of interviews with men and women in several Asian and African countries. He said many men told the researchers that they would be circumcised if they could.

In a Bailey's survey of 216 adults of the Luo tribe in Western Kenya, 60 percent of the men he talked to said they would prefer to be circumcised and 62 percent of the women he spoke with would prefer to have circumcised partners. But only 10 percent of the men the actually have had the procedure done.

Richard Burzynski, executive director of the International Council of AIDS Service Organization in Toronto, said that in a perfect world male circumcision would be readily available in these countries. But the cost of the procedure, which Bailey estimated at $5 per person, is not affordable in countries where the annual amount spent on health care averages $3 per person.

"I don't know if throwing money into circumcisions is what the world should be doing right now," Burzynski said. "While circumcision might reduce the risk of getting HIV, the procedure alone doesn't stop people from getting the virus."