Nervously Nelson Mandela awaited the step into another world. Around mid-day he was sitting naked with outspread legs on a blanket. On that summer´s day in 1935 the medicine man then appeared. Without anesthesia, the healer used the ritual knife. When the future president of South Africa looked down, he found "a perfect cut, clean and round like a ring".
Lately this mini-operation, which is widely performed in Africa, not only serves as initiation rite that makes men out of boys. More and more boys belonging to families, where circumcision is not the norm, appear at the archaic tribal ceremonies. With this minor slaughter many parents want to prevent this little piece of flesh from becoming a deadly liability to their children one day: the sons should be protected from getting infected by the HI Virus during sexual intercourse.
Around the world around 70% of all HIV infected men got infected through vaginal intercourse - up till now that amounted to over 12,8 million cases, most of them in Africa. More recent statistics indicate that circumcised men have a much reduced risk to get infected than those who are uncircumcised.
A possible explanation for the phenomenon was recently provided by scientists from the University of Melbourne. Their research has shown that the inner foreskin provides almost no protection against the invasion of virusses - in contrast to the outer foreskin, which has been caretonized - not as much as the soles of one´s feet, but enough to provide protection against germs.
The US virologist Bruce Patterson now even believe to have observed how the agents that cause infection are able to get into the body through this anatomical weak point. Around 30 newly cut foreskins have been infected in the lab with the deadly viruses.
New supplies for his experiments are provided by men who had been forced by phimosis to be circumcised as adults. In this way physicians are provided with foreskins from the most vulnerable group made up of men between the ages of 20-45.
Every time new tissue samples arrive in lab at the Northwestern University in Chicago, Pattersons marks the foreskin cells and AIDS virusses with different coloring agents. If the virusses succeed in entering the skin layers of the inner foreskin, the tissues noticeably discolors - on the outer foreskin on the other hand, the virusses behave like drops of water falling off an umbrella.
Scientists have now calculated that for uncircumcised men the infection rate increases by a factor of 2,5 to 8 fold in comparison with those who are without a foreskin. The virologist Patterson is therefore convinced that "in many countries circumcision would be the best prevention against AIDS".
Especially in Africa this recommendation could save many lives. There the virus is mainly transmitted through heterosexual sex. About 70% of all AIDS cases are found in Africa south of the Sahara, which constitutes only about 10% of the world´s population.
In Africa itself scientists have also recently made a remarkable discovery. In Uganda Doctors tested 187 different couples: while the women were already HIV infected, the men were not. These men were informed of their high risk situation regarding sexual intercourse, and were given free condoms. The efforts of the doctors were in vain. Almost all disregarded the warnings.
But unexpectedly, 2 and half years later none of the 50 circumcised men had been infected. On the other hand, 57 uncircumcised men were infected. Such epidemiological results are causing medical scientists to speculate with numbers. In countries like Nigeria or Indonesia, where only around a fifth of all men are uncircumcised, Robert Bailey of the Unviversity of Illinois in Chicago has calculated that the number of HIV infections is reduced by 25%.
And in Zambia or Thailand, where only one in five men live without a foreskin, the spread of the virus could be halved when all men would be circumcised.
(rough translation of the original German article)