Feature story

Male Circumcision and HIV: the here and now (Part 2)

28 February 2007

In the second of a special three-part series on the issue of male circumcision and its links to the reduction of HIV acquisition, unaids.org considers current research findings.

It’s a subject that hits headlines, fuels discussions, sparks debate and causes some of the men in the room to wince and cross their legs. Male circumcision and its links to HIV is one of the most talked about issues within the AIDS response over the last years, with latest research findings driving potential change in the way male circumcision is practiced and implemented for the future in relation to HIV prevention.

In scientific circles, the perceived links between male circumcision and HIV infection are nothing new. For years, AIDS researchers have observed that many African tribes that circumcise boys or young men had lower HIV rates than those that do not, and that Africa's Islamic nations, where circumcision is near universal, had far fewer AIDS cases than predominantly Christian ones.

Now, trials in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa have all shown that male circumcision significantly reduces a man’s risk of acquiring HIV. The three sets of trials have shown circumcised men are up 50 to 60% less likely to acquire HIV during heterosexual intercourse.

Research findings

The first research proof came in 2005, when a study in South Africa, supported by the French agence nationale de recherches sur le sida (ANRS) and known as the 'Orange Farm Intervention Trial', was stopped early in the face of evidence that the men who had been randomly assigned to be circumcised were getting 60% fewer HIV infections than the men assigned to the control group.

In December 2006, on the recommendation of their Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB), two similar studies in Uganda and Kenya were halted early by the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) because the interim results showed a significant effect of male circumcision in preventing HIV acquisition in men.

The trial carried out in Kisumu, Kenya by researchers from the University of Nairobi, University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Manitoba, and RTI International involving 2,784 men aged 18 to 24 showed a 53% reduction of HIV infections in circumcised men compared to uncircumcised men.

In Uganda, the trial, carried out in Rakai by researchers from Makerere University, the Uganda Virus Research Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and Columbia University New York, involved 4996 men aged 15 to 49 years old and showed that adult male circumcision reduced by 51% the risk of becoming infected with HIV.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the institute ended both trials early and offered circumcision to all men involved in them. The trials began in 2005 and were due to go until mid-2007.

The biology

Male circumcision involves the surgical removal of the foreskin, the tissue covering the head of the penis. Previous research shows that removing the foreskin is associated with a variety of health benefits including lower rates of urinary tract infections in male infants who are circumcised and reduced risk of certain inflammations and health problems associated with the foreskin.

Scientists say male circumcision probably reduces the risk of HIV infection because it removes tissue in the foreskin that is particularly vulnerable to the virus, and because the area under the foreskin is easily scratched or torn during sex. “Uncircumcised men may also be more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, which in turn increase the risk of contracting HIV, because the region under the foreskin provides a moist, dark place in which germs can thrive,” said UNAIDS Chief Scientific Adviser, Dr Catherine Hankins.

No ‘magic bullet’

The results of the trials in South Africa, Uganda and Kenya indicate that in certain settings, adult male circumcision could become an important addition to an HIV prevention strategy for men. “The trials indicate that male circumcision can lower both an individual's risk of infection and hopefully the rate of HIV spread through the community," NIH’s Dr Fauci said.

But experts— including the United Nations bodies working on the issue—caution that circumcision is no cure-all. Male circumcision does not provide complete protection against HIV infection; it only lessens the chances that a man will acquire the virus.

Circumcision is "not a magic bullet, but a potentially important intervention," said Dr. Kevin M. De Cock, director of the World Health Organization’s AIDS department.

“Men and women must understand that circumcised men can still become infected with the virus and if HIV-positive, can infect their sexual partners,” said UNAIDS’ Dr Hankins

“ Male circumcision should never replace other known effective prevention methods and should always be considered as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention package, which includes correct and consistent use of male or female condoms, reduction in the number of sexual partners, delaying the onset of sexual relations, and abstaining from penetrative sex”, she said.

Safety, sanitation and communication

To ensure safe and clean operations, male circumcision should only be performed by well-trained practitioners in sanitary settings under conditions of informed consent, confidentiality, proper counseling and safety. “If male circumcision is to be promoted, this should be done in a culturally appropriate manner and people should be provided sufficient and correct information on HIV prevention to prevent them from developing a false sense of security and engaging in risky behavior,” said Dr Hankins.

These considerations and others in relation to the AIDS response, including the fact that male circumcision has the potential to be an expensive intervention, that more research is needed to address whether male circumcision reduces risk of transmitting HIV-particularly for female partners, and the different ethical and human rights issues raised by male circumcision, will form discussions of the United Nations consultation on male circumcision that will take place in Geneva from 5 March. Here, WHO, the UNAIDS Secretariat and their partners will review the detailed trial findings and will, if deemed appropriate, then define specific policy recommendations for expanding and/or promoting male circumcision.

“Male circumcision is a complicated issue which involves sometimes difficult discussion on issues of culture, tradition, religion, ethnicity, human rights and gender. The consultation will provide an excellent arena for moving the discussion and policy forward within the United Nations,” said Dr Hankins.


Male Circumcision: context, criteria and culture (Part 1)
Male Circumcision and HIV: the here and now (Part 2)
Moving forwards: UN policy and action on male circumcision (Part 3)