Circumcision cuts men's HIV risk but raises women's?

A new study says maybe, maybe not.

Published March 7, 2007 8:54PM (EST)

Circumcision has been shown to greatly reduce men's risk of contracting HIV, but according to a recent study it might increase women's risk of infection. Read: capital M-I-G-H-T. Researchers say "the numbers so far were too small to be statistically significant, and left open the possibility that the higher rates were due to chance," reports the Associated Press.

This study followed 997 HIV-positive Ugandan men and their sexual partners. So far, only preliminary results have been released: "Among 70 men with HIV who underwent circumcision, 11 of their female partners became infected with the virus in the month after the surgery. In contrast, only four partners of 54 uncircumcised men with HIV in the control group caught the virus -- nearly half the rate, early results showed." The findings might suggest that a woman's chance of HIV infection is increased when having unprotected sex with a recently circumcised man.

Again, though, the sample size is too small to draw sweeping conclusions. But that's often the case with studies on HIV transmission. There always lingers that moral paradox: Can researchers in good conscience conduct a comprehensive study on HIV infection -- in the interest of reducing the disease's reach -- when it requires standing party to thousands of people partaking in a game of sexual Russian roulette? Most recently, researchers felt a moral obligation to halt another Ugandan study when preliminary results demonstrated that circumcision dramatically reduces rates of male HIV infection.

There was already plenty of reason to be concerned by the push for a simple snip to reduce men's HIV risk and this only raises one more red flag. Consider, too, that women account for more than 60 percent of HIV cases in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Kevin De Cock, director of WHO's AIDS department, told the AP: "These new findings remind us that we must proceed with thought and care in developing strategies to expand male circumcision in Africa. Circumcision is an additional prevention strategy rather than a replacement for anything else."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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