Male circumcision no help to women?

A new study says it directly cuts men's HIV risk, but not women's.

Published February 4, 2008 9:50PM (EST)

The debate over the not-so-"simple snip" is becoming ever more complex -- and not just as a question of sexual pleasure or cultural mores but of preventing disease. Circumcision may drastically cut men's risk of HIV infection, but it doesn't appear to protect female sex partners, according to a new study. In fact, women face an increased risk of infection if they have sex with a recently circumcised man.

This might sound like old news to Broadsheet readers; these findings were foreshadowed nearly a year ago when preliminary results were released from a related study conducted by the same group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. The study, which was presented Sunday at the 15th annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston, followed 1,015 HIV-infected Ugandan men; half were circumcised immediately, half were part of the control group and waited two years before being circumcised. Ultimately, though, researchers focused on 161 heterosexual couples in which the men, but not the women, were infected; in this group, 93 men had an immediate circumcision, while 68 waited two years.

As the New York Times reports: "In both groups, the incidence of infection was highest in the first six-month follow-up period, 27.3 in the immediate group and 17.8 in the delayed one. The incidence declined for the rest of the study period, 5.7 in the immediate group compared with 4.1 in the delayed group." But a higher transmission rate was found among couples who did not abstain from sex for the recommended month after the procedure. Just as with those similar preliminary results, researchers are cautioning that the findings are not statistically significant and need to be supported by further research.

Meanwhile, the fight against Africa's AIDS epidemic is being waged on increasingly varied fronts: The World Health Organization has endorsed circumcision as a prevention method, but also emphasizes the need for safe-sex education. Now, in light of these recent findings, those on the front lines are being encouraged to push the protective benefits of circumcision while also insisting that couples practice safe sex, or have no sex at all, until the wound has healed completely.

What do Broadsheeters think about this multipronged approach?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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