Is Circumcision Healthy? — Yes
by Dr. Edgar J. Schoen

American Council on Science and Health, Contents: Volume 9 Number 4 (1998)

"Circumcision is like a substantial and well-secured annuity; every year of life you draw the benefits. Parents cannot make a better paying investment for their little boys." An 1891 book on the medical aspects of neonatal (newborn) circumcision included this statement by Dr. P. C. Remondino, a prominent California physician of the era. Now, over a century later, a burgeoning body of peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature confirms that circumcision is an important preventive health measure.

That circumcision is protective against penile cancer and local infection (balanoposthitis) has long been known. Remondino was also aware that uncircumcised men have a higher likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), particularly syphilis and chancroid, than have circumcised men. During World War II many U.S. recruits were circumcised to protect them against balanoposthitis. Such infection was a significant cause of active-duty loss among troops, particularly in the North African campaign (because of the combination of sand and poor hygiene). Military medics also felt that circumcision helped prevent STDs. In the past decade published studies have shown that the presence of a foreskin increases the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs), which are most dangerous during infancy, and the risk of HIV infection.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 1989 Task Force on Circumcision, which I chaired, was aware of the work of U.S. Army neonatologist Thomas Wiswell. Using the armed-forces database Wiswell had shown that significant UTIs were 10 to 20 times more common in uncircumcised infants than in circumcised infants. But the AAP Task Force felt that this finding remained to be proved. Since then, nine major published studies have substantiated that neonatal circumcision prevents serious UTIs in the first year of life. Moreover, studies have shown that uncircumcised Australian preschool boys and uncircumcised young men had a higher risk of UTI than their circumcised peers.

The mechanism by which the foreskin predisposes to UTI has been well described. Serious UTIs are caused by specific intestinal bacteria (particularly by a group called "fimbriated E. coli"). Electron micrography has shown that these tentacled germs have a strong tendency to stick to the moist, mucous underside of the foreskin. From this undersurface they move toward the tip of the penis, enter the urethra (the canal within the penis), and ascend the urinary tract. The resulting infection is most dangerous in the first year of life, when it can lead to scarring of the kidneys and can spread to the bloodstream, causing a potentially deadly generalized infection.

Tulane University urologist James Roberts, who helped identify the mechanism of UTIs in uncircumcised boys, has said that repeated, symptomless (continued on page 26) UTIs in uncircumcised infants may, later in their lives, result in unexplained hypertension and diminishment of kidney function. But convincing long-term evidence of such results is lacking.

In the late 1980s studies from Nairobi, Kenya, first showed a link between the foreskin and HIV infection. According to reports of these studies published in 1989:

Several explanations have been proposed for the increase in risk. In the case of ulcerating STDs (e.g., syphilis and chancroid), HIV can enter through the open sore. In uncircumcised men the virus can enter through sexually induced tears in the foreskin. And there is evidence that special cells (Langerhans cells) in the foreskin facilitate HIV adherence.

In an important survey based on 22 epidemiological studies from 10 countries, a group led by Dr. David Moses of the University of Manitoba found that uncircumcised men had, on average, 4 times the risk of HIV infection compared to circumcised men. Most of the studies that served as the basis of Moses's survey had been conducted in African countries and other parts of the Third World, where AIDS is chiefly a heterosexual disease. But according to a report from Seattle, Washington, homosexual men are likewise at higher risk if they are uncircumcised.

Sub-Saharan Africa's "AIDS belt," which includes most East African countries, is home to only 2 percent of the world's population but has half the world's 16 million HIV cases. In the Third World, the primary transmitters of HIV are long-distance truck drivers who have, outside their villages, contracted the disease from prostitutes. Circumcision of men at high risk of HIV infection has been proposed to stem the raging AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Recently, scientists John and Pat Caldwell studied the factors in this epidemic. In a detailed article published in 1996 in Scientific American, the Caldwells concluded that lack of male circumcision was the one factor that correlated with rampant HIV transmission.

In India and other parts of Asia, HIV infection is becoming epidemic as a heterosexual disease transmitted by cross-country truck drivers. A recent New England Journal of Medicine editorial on this imminent epidemic stated that the spread of HIV appeared less rapid in those Asian countries in which circumcision is routine (e.g., the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh). Because of the compelling evidence linking the foreskin and HIV transmission, many physicians previously ambivalent about recommending universal neonatal circumcision have come to support it.

In view of the documented, significant medical benefits of circumcision, why is there reluctance and sometimes outright antipathy toward the measure? Below are some reasons.

Cultural, religious, and ethnic factors strongly affect the decision whether or not to request circumcision. Circumcision of members of observant Muslim and Jewish families is a religious rite. But some cultures—Hispanic and Asian, for example—do not embrace circumcision. In California, where 45 percent of newborns are Hispanic, the rate of circumcision is less than 50 percent. Circumcision has been on the decline there as the birth rate of Hispanics and Asians has increased. In the midwestern United States, where immigrants and minorities constitute a smaller proportion of the population, the circumcision rate is 75 to 80 percent. Educational factors are important as well. Of those men in the NHSLS group whose mothers had not graduated from high school, 62 percent had been circumcised; but of those whose mothers had undergone further education, 85 percent had been circumcised.

Complications of neonatal circumcision are uncommon. Minor bleeding and infection occur in one out of every 300 to 500 cases and are easily controlled. Serious complications are rare and are usually related to poor surgical technique. In a survey of 500,000 neonatal circumcisions in New York State, researchers found that no deaths or penile amputations had resulted.

The lifetime health benefits of neonatal circumcision—including the long-known benefits of genital-hygiene improvement and prevention of local infection and penile cancer—far exceed the risks of the procedure. Circumcision prevents serious kidney infections, particularly in infancy; and there is strong evidence that it has a protective effect against some serious STDs, especially HIV infection, syphilis, and chancroid. A one-week-old circumcised boy has a significant health advantage over his uncircumcised contemporary. And being without a foreskin won't dent his sex life.

Edgar J. Schoen, M.D., is Director of Regional Perinatal Screening in the Department of Genetics at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Oakland, California.