New Data Support Long-Term Health Benefits of Male Circumcision

Fran Lowry

January 04, 2010

January 4, 2010 — The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy on newborn male circumcision, initiated in 1999 and reaffirmed in 2005, states that data are insufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision. However, recent results from 3 randomized trials showing that it prevents sexually transmitted infections suggest that it is time to revise this policy to fully reflect these benefits, according to a review published in the January 2010 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

“During the past 4 years, substantial new data have been published on the health benefits of circumcision,” write Aaron A. R. Tobian, MD, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues. “While the historical evidence strongly suggests that male circumcision reduces urinary tract infections and penile inflammatory disorders in infants, we reviewed the more recent evidence with regard to effects on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in adulthood.”

To evaluate the effect of circumcision on HIV prevention, the researchers analyzed 3 randomized controlled trials of more than 10,000 men from South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda.

The trials enrolled HIV-negative men to circumcision on enrollment or after 21 to 24 months, and all 3 trials demonstrated that male circumcision significantly decreased male heterosexual HIV acquisition by 53% to 60%, despite differences in age eligibility criteria, urban or rural settings, and surgical procedure.

Results Prompted New WHO/UNAIDS Recommendations

Because of this new evidence, the World Health Organization (WHO), together with the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), recommended that male circumcision be provided as an important intervention to reduce heterosexually acquired HIV in men, the study authors report.

The trials also found that male circumcision decreased herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) acquisition by 28% to 34% and the prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV) by 32% to 35% in men.

Among female partners of circumcised men, bacterial vaginosis was reduced by 40% and Trichomonas vaginalis infection was reduced by 48%, the study authors write.

The study authors note that the rates of neonatal circumcision complications are between 0.2% and 0.6% of operations performed. The most common complications are bleeding and local infection, which are controlled with pressure and wound care or antibiotics. Other complications, such as phimosis and concealed penis, adhesions, fistula, meatitis, meatal stenosis, and injury to the glans, are extremely rare.

They add that there was no evidence of change in sexual behavior after circumcision in the African randomized controlled trials. “Thus, there are risks to neonatal circumcision, but serious long-term complications are extremely rare,” the study authors write.

“The rare short-term risks of neonatal circumcision need to be weighed against the potential benefits accrued in infancy and childhood (eg, reduction of urinary tract infections), the longer-term benefits that may accrue in adolescence and adulthood (eg, reduced risks of HIV, HSV-2, and HPV), as well as possible benefits to female sexual partners of circumcised men (eg, reduced bacterial vaginosis and trichomonas),” Dr. Tobian and colleagues write.

Medicaid does not cover the cost of male circumcision in 16 states, and the lack of coverage particularly affects disadvantaged minorities, who have the highest risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. “These socioeconomically disadvantaged groups could benefit most if Medicaid covered the costs of neonatal circumcision. Thus, the AAP’s policy has important implications for the health of disadvantaged minorities,” they write.

They conclude that it is time for the AAP policy to fully reflect current data.

Coverage for Circumcision

In an accompanying editorial, Michael T. Brady, MD, from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, writes that the study authors have provided a very objective review of the available data. Although the 3 randomized trials were performed in Africa, “it is clear that circumcision does offer health benefits, even in the United States,” he notes.

The current evidence on the health benefits of circumcision is adequate enough to include circumcision in medical coverage provided by Medicaid or commercial insurance providers, Dr. Brady points out. “This is particularly relevant since over the past decade many state Medicaid programs have discontinued payment for circumcision.”

He concludes that recommendations for routine newborn circumcision will need to wait for well-designed studies that verify its cost-effectiveness for the individual and/or society. “With available data, we are not there yet, but we may be getting closer.”

Dr. Tobian and Dr. Brady have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2010;164:78-84, 94-96.

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