Saturday, February 5, 2011

The case against infant circumcision Brief Version

Recently Cooper Morris & Wodek made their case for infant circumcision in the Australian Medical Journal claiming it was like a surgical vaccine, Their case was strongly rebutted by 8 letters of reply found here:   

Cooper et al responded by making a wider case for circumcision, and this was suberbly rebutted by Dr Robert Darby, of which I will briefly summarise here:

The most recent comprehensive survey of the benefits of infant circumcision (Perera et al 2010) found the benefits to be minimal or non-existent. 

Why circumcision in infancy?

There is no evidence that circumcision must be performed in infancy to provide a protective effect against HIV. All the evidence for circumcision having a protective effect comes from circumcision of sexually active adult men in the African clinical trials. If the aim is to forestall a heterosexual AIDS epidemic in Australia, it will be sufficient to ensure that sexually active adult men who plan to enjoy a wide variety of partners and are careless about condoms can choose to get themselves circumcised. And in truth, any adult male in Australia who wishes to get himself circumcised, for this or any other reason, can do so without difficulty or trouble, and get the operation subsidised by Medicare. No further action is needed.
Fundamentally, Cooper, Wodak and Morris lack faith in their own prescription. If the argument for circumcision as a precaution against heterosexually transmitted HIV was as cogent as they claim, men would be lining up to get it done. That they do not suggests both that the argument is weak and that men are not convinced. Recognising this reluctance, the gang of three fail to propose what is logically suggested by the evidence (circumcision to be available for men at high risk of heterosexually transmitted HIV ), and instead turn their sights on those too young to defend their own interests – children, who are at zero risk of sexually transmitted infections, and who will not be at risk for the foreseeable future, by which time treatment and prevention options, and the virus itself, may well have changed beyond recognition. It is easy to see that their prescription is driven more by a fanatical desire to promote circumcision than by a sober analysis of the best way to combat AIDS.

Misrepresentation of statistics on HIV infection

For all Cooper et al's assumption of a looming epidemic of heterosexual HIV infection in Australia, the fact is that HIV contracted through unprotected intercourse with an infected female partner (the only avenue of infection of which there is any evidence of circumcision having a protective effect) remains extremely rare here. As the 2010 surveillance report, issued by the very organisation of which Professor Cooper is director, states:
  • “the annual number of new HIV diagnoses has remained relatively stable at around 1000 over the past four years”;
  • “HIV continues to be transmitted primarily through sexual contact between men”;
  • “of 1185 cases of HIV infection newly diagnosed in 2005-2009, 58% were in people from high prevalence countries or their partners” - i.e. were not contracted in Australia unless from a partner.

1. AIDS & HIV statistics by transmission route and gender

2. Smith, A. et al. Australian Study of Health and Relationships Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Volume 27, Number 2, April 2003
3. Ferris JA, Richters J, Pitts MK, Shelley JM, Simpson JM. Ryall R, Smith AMA. Circumcision in Australia: further evidence on its effects on sexual health and wellbeing, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 34:2, pp160-4
4. Australian Public Access Datasets on newly diagnosed HIV infection and AIDS
This is not the only area where Coooper, Wodak and Morris have misrepresented or misunderstood the data. In their original article they also made misleading claims as to the recommendations made by the World Health Organisation on circumcision as a tactic for AIDS control in Africa, and also about the incidence of circumcision in Australia.

Misrepresentation of WHO recommendations on circumcision

In their original paper Cooper et al state: “The protection conferred to heterosexual males by circumcision is similar in hyperendemic and low-prevalence settings (refs. 3-5).” This is untrue, and shown to be untrue by their own references.
Reference 3 states: “Male circumcision, together with other prevention interventions, could play an important role in HIV prevention in settings similar to those of the clinical trials.” ( That is, it is not recommended in countries with low HIV prevalence such as Australia.
Reference 4 states: “Together, these three trials provided strong evidence that MC can significantly reduce men’s risk of acquiring HIV infection in the contexts in which the trials were conducted.”  (Public Health Rep 2010; 125 Suppl 1: 72-82)
Reference 5 is to Morris BJ. Why circumcision is a biomedical imperative for the 21st century. Bioessays 2007; 29: 1147-1158. This is simply an opinion piece by one of the authors of the article under consideration. The one reference in this that might bear on the issue proves to be to yet another opinion piece by the same author.
No researchers have published any results of clinical trials of male circumcision outside Africa, and very limited observational data exist on the association between circumcision status and HIV infection among men – but much of what does exist shows that circumcision is of no benefit at all. Mor et al.’s study of nearly 58,000 men attending San Francisco's STD clinics found “no significant differences between circumcision status and the risk of HIV or syphilis infection” in either men who have sex with men or heterosexual men. [5]
The claim that circumcision prevents heterosexual HIV transmission from women to men is based on three non-double-blinded, non-placebo-controlled Randomised Controlled Trials in Africa [6,7,8] in which a total of 5,400 men were circumcised, all called off after less than two years, at which time a total of 64 of the men in the circumcised experimental groups had HIV, compared to 137 in the non-circumcised control groups. 673 men in total were lost from those trials, their HIV status unknown. But even granting that those trials proved that circumcision grants “60% reduction” in female-to-male heterosexual HIV transmission (the most widely quoted figure, even though the Cochrane Review estimates it as between 38 and 64 per cent, and we have no idea as to that the risk reduction in Australia, if any, might be), a case for widespread neonatal circumcision does not follow.
5. Mor Z, Kent CK, Kohn RP, Klausner JD (2007) Declining Rates in Male Circumcision amidst Increasing Evidence of its Public Health Benefit. PLoS ONE 2(9): e861. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000861
6. Auvert B, Taljaard D, Lagarde E, Sobngwi-Tambekou J, Sitta R, et al. 2005. Randomized, controlled intervention trial of male Circumcision for reduction of HIV infection risk: The ANRS 1265 Trial. PLoS Med 2:e298.
7. Bailey RC, Moses S, Parker CB, Agot K, Maclean I, et al. 2007. Male circumcision for HIV prevention in young men in Kisumu, Kenya: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 369:643-656.
8. Gray RH, Kigozi G, Serwadda D, Makumbi F, Watya S, et al. 2007. Male ircumcision for HIV prevention in men in Rakai, Uganda: a randomised trial. Lancet 369:657-666.

Misrepresentation of statistics on the incidence of circumcision in Australia

Cooper, Wodak and Morris claim: “Despite official discouragement, Medicare statistics show a rise in the rate of infant male circumcision in Australia from 13% in 1998 to 19% in 2009.”
In fact, the national rate of infant male circumcision, based on Medicare claims statistics [9] and births data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics [10], has not exceeded 13% at any time during the period for which Medicare statistics are available on-line (July 1993 to the present).

Circumcision and vaccination

Perhaps the most scandalous gambit in the Cooper et al reply to critics is their insinuation that opponents of circumcision as a tactic against HIV control in Australia are also against vaccination. This allegation is unfounded and untrue: no prominent critic of circumcision has ever attacked vaccination, nor did any of the letters to which Cooper et al were responding. There may be some individuals among the general public who are opposed to both circumcision and vaccination, but most critics of circumcision, both within the medical profession (such as the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in its recent policy statement) and among the informed public (such as this website) are not merely not opposed to vaccination, but fully support it as a valid instance of preventive, evidence-based medicine.
Circumcision promoters seem unable to grasp the fundamental difference between amputating body parts to provide limited protection against a rare disease to which the individual is unlikely to be exposed, and giving a person a needle that confers a high level of immunity to common or contagious diseases. The justification for vaccination of non-consenting children is that the diseases to which it confers immunity are common and/or highly contagious. Airborne diseases, such as smallpox, diphtheria, measles and scarlet fever were all major killers before vaccines were developed. Edward Jenner’s vaccine against smallpox was one of the few preventive health success stories of the nineteenth century. Because such diseases are spread by breathing, one person can quickly infect many others: a single child can infect a class or a whole school, just by being there. Vaccination thus protects both the individual who receives the treatment and the people with whom he comes into contact.
Unlike these diseases, HIV is a low-virulence disease. It is very difficult to pass on a disease that is spread by bodily fluids such as blood and sperm, which must enter the bloodstream of the other person before they can do any harm. No matter how much close social interaction with other people there is, there is no risk that an HIV-positive person can pass on the virus to anybody else – unless he or she has unprotected sexual intercourse or otherwise transfers bodily fluids into the other person’s system. Even in cases of unprotected intercourse, the risk of infection is quite low – estimated at rather less than 10 per cent. Quite apart from the vital matter of disfigurement, the justification for vaccination against highly contagious diseases simply does not apply to HIV-AIDS.
It is actually quite hypocritical for Cooper, Wodak and Morris to attack critics of circumcision by suggesting that they are anti-vaccination. Morris himself is on record as disparaging the vaccine (Gardasil) recently developed to protect women against varieties of human papilloma virus that cause cervical cancer.
So let’s have no more of this anti-scientific nonsense. Circumcision is amputation of a prominent, functional body part that causes injury, loss and harm for a merely speculative gain. Vaccination is a harmless pinprick that strengthens the body’s natural defence mechanisms and confers a high level of immunity against contagious diseases.

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