At this week’s Third International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis and Treatment, researchers reported that circumcising men can help protect them from contracting HIV. The study is the first that used the procedure specifically to prevent infection.
Bertran Auvert of the French National Research Agency INSERM and colleagues tested more than 3,000 uninfected men ages 18-24 in South Africa's Guateng Province. Thirty-two percent of adults in the province are HIV-positive. Some of the men were circumcised at the start of the trial, while others underwent the procedure after 21 months. At the trial's conclusion, researchers recorded 69 cases of HIV infection; only 18 of these were among men who were circumcised at the outset of the study.
"It shows that the intervention [circumcision] prevented between six and seven out of 10 possible infections," Auvert said, noting this his team's results were consistent with those of earlier observational studies in India and some African countries. The effect has been especially noticeable in certain parts of Africa where some groups of men are routinely circumcised while other nearby groups are not.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS responded in a statement: "Although the trial shows promising protective effects of adult male circumcision in reducing HIV acquisition, UNAIDS emphasizes that more research is needed."
Anticipating that demand for the operation may soon increase, the World Health Organization is developing guidelines to help qualified medical personnel perform it safely. Health officials have expressed concern that increased demand might raise the number of operations performed by traditional healers and that improperly performed circumcisions might actually increase the risk of infection. They also worry that less condom use and more risky sex could occur as a result of a false sense of safety and decreased sensitivity in the circumcised penis.
Because the foreskin is covered in cells that HIV seems to be able to infect easily, researchers believe removing it makes infection less likely. In addition, HIV may survive better in the warm, wet environment found beneath the foreskin. (Reuters)