Male Circumcision is Inappropriate for the Prevention of HIV
Last updated on 1st September 2008Recent research in Africa has claimed to provide proof that male circumcision confers protection against HIV/AIDS.
NORM-UK, NOCIRC and ICGI consider male circumcision inappropriate as an intervention for three reasons: bioethical considerations, lack of real-world applicability and doubts about the science.
To summarise the research finding, men who were circumcised in the study were reported to be at a roughly 60% reduced relative risk of HIV compared to those who retained the normal foreskin. This amounted to an absolute risk reduction, during the two years of the study, of around 1.3%. Participants who were circumcised suffered a complication rate of up to 3% with complications including erectile dysfunction. Whether those who were circumcised will remain at lower risk during their remaining lives is purely speculative.
Bioethical implicationsThere are over-riding ethical reasons why circumcision of men for protection from HIV is inappropriate:-
Everyone has a right to autonomy: the right to make an informed choice as an adult to decide the fate of their own body. While adult men have the right to be circumcised if they consider that it will protect them from HIV, they have a right to be realisticallly informed about the prospects of the treatment achieving the goal, the negative effects that will go along with it and the risks.
Informed consent to circumcision for HIV protection must disclose:-
It is never appropriate to remove normal body parts from normal unconsenting children to prevent diseases of sexually promiscuous adults.
Real World ApplicabilitySeveral lines of enquiry suggest that the findings of the research do not translate into any meaningful reduction of HIV in the real world:-
Review of the ScienceThe African HIV studies fall short of the gold-standard of proof of medical effectiveness. The lack of blinding in the studies makes them prone to "observer bias". The researchers were known to be biassed since they had previously published work advocating male circumcision for the prevention of HIV in Africa.
The studies recruited men who "wanted to be circumcised" because the participants believed that circumcision would protect them from HIV. Those who were circumcised in the studies had less sex than those who were not since they alone were told to abstain from sex for six weeks.
The number of study participants who were "lost to follow-up" from the studies far outweighed the number of participants who acquired the virus. This casts serious doubt on the validity of the research findings.
The studies were terminated early. Research has shown that studies terminated early consistently overestimate the benefits of treatment. In two well-documented cases a data-monitoring committee recommended that the study be terminated early because there was no possibility of the treatment being shown to be ineffective but the study nevertheless went on to its end. The conclusion was that the treatment was not effective. It has been suggested that exciting finding in studies terminated early merely "reflect the prevailing bias" of the research community.
The studies have been supported by a massive publicity machine to drive home the conclusion. Publication of the studies was accompanied by pictures on the TV news of African boys being rushed into gleaming sterile operating theatres of a type that are thin on the ground in Africa. The reality is that African boys will be circumcised in the bush with a dirty knife that has just circumcised an HIV positive boy. As such, to promote circumcision in Africa is recklessly irresponsible.
The researchers have emphasised exciting reductions in relative risk while the findings in terms of absolute risk are less appealing. Even where the prevalence of HIV is very high, the risks of circumcision outweighed the benefits. In developed nations the risk to benefit ratio will be much higher.
That said, the researchers are to be complemented for being the first to use a Randomised Controlled Trial to prove that circumcision is actually effective in preventing a disease. Given this ground breaking finding, why will they not share their data with other researchers outside their closed group?
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