Circumcision, Religious Freedom, and Herpes Infections in New York City

Howard Markel, MD, PhD


October 17, 2006

If you ever find yourself in the coffee line at a medical conference, be prepared to eavesdrop on a gaggle of doctors exchanging the medical equivalent of "war stories," wild tales of clinical misadventures and treatment plans gone awry. It was precisely at such a venue that I heard what easily qualifies as one of the strangest — and scariest — medical tale of recent times.

It actually began in 2004 when the New York City Department of Health received reports of 3 newborn, male babies who contracted herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). All of them required weeks of hospital care and intravenous injections of powerful antiviral medication. Tragically, one of them died from the infection.

Unlike a mere cold sore or an embarrassing, painful crop of genital blisters, herpes for a newborn is truly a life-and-death matter. Aggressive and relentless, the herpes virus can destroy an infant's brain in a matter of days. Every pediatrician who notices any type of blister on a newborn's body shudders as he contemplates whether its cause is merely an abrasive blanket or, far worse, a harbinger of a systemic infection with herpes.

But the story only gets stranger. Using a mixture of detective work and medical acumen, the New York City Department of Health figured out that all of these babies contracted herpes shortly after undergoing a ritual circumcision by the same mohel, the religious figure in the Jewish faith charged with conducting the ancient and spiritually important ceremony called a bris.

Under Jewish law, the mohel is required to draw blood from the circumcision site, ostensibly to remove what the Old Testament refers to as "impurities" and what we might interpret today as germs. The thought, back then, was that a flow of blood away from the circumcision site would carry these potentially dangerous entities away from the baby. But the traditional way to do this, a practice called Metzizah bi peh, calls for the mohel to use his mouth and suck out the blood.

To be sure, this peculiar means of viral spread remains rare. Nevertheless, there have been 11 cases of male babies who contracted herpes following circumcisions that included Metzizah bi peh reported over the past 5 years in New York, Canada, and Israel. In 2005, there were 4 infected babies in New York City and all of them were circumcised by the same New York-based mohel (who only recently was persuaded to take a prolonged vacation from his line of work).

According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, New York City's Commissioner of Health, coincidence is not an explanatory option. "There is no reasonable doubt that the practice of Metzizah bi peh has infected several infants in New York City with the herpes virus, including one child who has died and another who has evidence of brain damage," said Dr. Frieden.

Given that more than 70% of all adults 40 years of age or older are infected with the herpes simplex virus; that the mouth is the most common site of HSV-1 infection; and that most adults with oral herpes do not know whether they are infected, typically do not have symptoms, but can still spread the infection to others, one can begin to understand the potential public health problems associated with such a tradition.

Indeed, this is precisely why the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and the New York-based Rabbinical Council of America, which serves more than 1000 rabbis in the United States and Canada, began urging all mohels to avoid the potential spread of infection by using a tiny, sterile glass tube to draw the blood instead of putting their mouths directly on the circumcision wound. The overwhelming majority of mohels working today follow this interpretation of the custom.

Yet the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community persists in adhering to ancient law precisely as it was written. That is, after all, what "orthodox" means. And despite the hedging and explaining by their less orthodox counterparts, Hasidic rabbis insist that performing the bris exactly as it was described in the Bible is essential to what it means to be Jewish.

So when the New York City Department of Health proposed a voluntary ban on the practice, the Hasidic community tersely told the government agency not to interfere in their religious beliefs or practices. Indeed, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, one that has a great deal of political clout in New York City politics, has pledged to fight any health edicts restricting the ancient practice with the proverbial tooth and nail.

Even if such a law could be written, how would you enforce it? After all, the bris is almost always performed in the parents' home, out of the view of the health department or a police officer.

Certainly this means of contracting a deadly infection is rare. Only 7 cases of mohel-related herpes have been reported in New York since 1998, and each year there are 2000 to 4000 circumcisions performed in that city alone. But rare does not mean nonexistent. No one can deny that this practice presents a real and serious health risk.

Just as frightening, there have been reports of other Jewish parents who, while less exacting in their religious practices, hired ultra-Orthodox mohels without knowledge that they practiced the potentially risky Metzizah bi peh procedure.

Dr. Frieden, the same public health crusader who managed to get cigarettes banned from all public spaces in New York City, admits that negotiating the rocky shoals of this controversy represents the "most delicate issue I have had to deal with."

"My ideal would be to inform the community so that they stop doing this and a large part of the Jewish community has accepted it," Dr. Frieden explained to me in an interview. "But this issue is far from over and it is still going on among those who are most Orthodox. If it were simple, we would have dealt with it simply."

That's an understatement. It has been years since I studied Talmud, but I know what my Rabbi would have uttered in response to this quandary of Biblical proportions: "Oyyyy."


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