Study: Circumcision of HIV-Positive Men Doesn't Protect Women

By Eliza Strickland | July 20, 2009 2:36 pm

AIDS ribbonCircumcising men who are infected with HIV does not protect their female partners from the deadly virus, researchers have found. The Uganda-based study was stopped early due to “futility,” the researchers wrote in a study published in The Lancet, when it became clear that the women were not benefiting. The outcome was disappointing because circumcision has been shown to drastically reduce infection rates in men. But the researchers said that wide-scale circumcision is so effective in protecting men that [it] will still likely benefit women indirectly by reducing circulation of the virus in general [Reuters].

In 2007, the World Health Organization concluded that circumcising males reduced female-to-male transmission of the HIV virus by about 60 percent. The foreskin of the penis, which is removed during circumcision, is rich in cells that are particularly easy for the virus to infect. The theory is that removing this source of vulnerable cells makes infection more difficult [Reuters].

While the new research showed that the circumcised men in the study did not protect their female partners from contracting the virus, experts say HIV-positive men should still be offered circumcision, but also warned to use condoms. The US researchers … say not offering the procedure to men with HIV would stigmatise them. Other experts say it could become a “sign” of whether a man was HIV positive or not [BBC News].

Circumcision has become an important tactic in the fight against HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, because the quick procedure can have such drastic benefits for men. Some other African nations are championing the procedure and bringing it to thousands. But in South Africa, the powerhouse country at the heart of the epidemic, the government has been notably silent, despite the withering international criticism the country has endured for its previous foot-dragging in fighting and treating AIDS [The New York Times]. The South African government doesn’t offer circumcision at its public hospitals, as the neighboring Botswana does, nor does it educate the public about the benefits of the procedure.

Related Content:
80beats: Bush’s AIDS Program Saved African Lives, Didn’t Cut Infection Rate
80beats: Male Circumcision Cuts Risk of HIV, Herpes, and HPV Transmission
DISCOVER: Male Circumcision: A New Defense Against HIV
DISCOVER: Finally! A Nearly Foolproof Circumcision

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Paul

    So why do the countries where men ARE NOT circumcised in Europe and Asia have much lower rates of HIV than the USA where most men ARE circumcised? That needs to be explained. Otherwise this circumcision propaganda is just that.

  • Ian Wilkinson

    What you fail to highlight is that the infection rate of partners of the circumcised group experienced HIV infection rates at 50% higher artes, really questioning the efficacy of circumcision as a tool in fighting HIV in Africa, looks like it makes it worse for women!!

  • scribbler

    Simple explanation of why other countries have lower rates could be as easy as they have fewer partners…


    Fact is that it has been shown time and time again that circumcision helps drastically reduce the transference to men. Simple logic demands that the fewer men with the disease, the fewer women infected…

  • robot makes music

    I think the mechanism described above is NOT TRUE for how circumcision protects males – I think it’s the fact that men are lousy bathers and uncut guys have a fold of skin that keeps the stank in, near their urethral opening. In other words, the virus has a place to live near the point of infection.

    Also consider the people getting infected are not the best decision makers out there. They are told condom use reduces the risk of HIV/AIDS and that multiple partners increases the risk…. and? they ignore this advice. I don’t think that telling any man that cutting off part of his penis (making sex less pleasurable, btw…. thanks parents) will reduce the risk of aids is going to be very effective, considering there are already much less painful ways to avoid the disease that they are currently ignoring.

  • Paul

    “Simple explanation of why other countries have lower rates could be as easy as they have fewer partners…”

    So wouldn’t it be more humane to change attitudes about the number of sex partners one has rather than hacking off the most sensitive part of the penis? It seems to work in Europe.

  • How to Diagnose HIV

    I have just checked this website and I have found this website to be very useful and informative. For quite some time now it had been widely believed that circumcision preventes the HIV virus from spread. But now the researches have shown that circumcision works only one way. It only prevents men form having HIV and women. So the women are still at risk. New methods must be developed for the prevention of HIV/AIDS instead of relying on circumcision.

  • scribbler

    Of course education and monogamy/abstinence are the best “cures”!

    Trouble is that people hold a prejudice toward circumcision so they ignore simple, provable facts…

    Is this ever wisdom?

    If getting cut isn’t for you then fine but if a man chooses to be circumcised to reduce his risk of AIDS, why try to dissuade him with prejudice that ignores fact???

  • Jack

    The big news here is that circumcision results in a higher risk of male to female HIV transmsision. This is an equal rise and fall of risk. As such, there is no reason to ask men to give up their main male pleasure zones (20,000 fine touch and stretch pleasure sensing nerves). This shows this is a total waste of resources.

  • scribbler

    Quote: “The big news here is that circumcision results in a higher risk of male to female HIV transmsision.”

    MeNow: This isn’t at all true. What it says is that it doesn’t reduce the infection rate for women as it clearly does for men, meaning that to women, having sex with an infected male holds the same risk whether he is cut or not.

  • Hugh7

    Jack and Scribbler: the study didn’t prove that circumcision increased the rate of transmission, but it gave a hint in that direction – 18% (17/92) partners of circumcised men got HIV vs 12% (8/67) of non-circumcised. That warranted further study, and it could have ethically been allowed to run, but they cut it short, saying it was because the couples had sex too soon after the operation. If it had run on they might have found that was not the reason and circumcision itself increased transmission.

    It has not “been shown time and time again” that circumcision protects men. In three studies, they circumcised a total of 5,400 men and left an equal number, and after less than two years, 64 of the circumcised men had HIV and 137 of the non-circumcised. That is the total basis of the claim. But 673 men, 327 of them circumcised, dropped out, their HIV status unknown, so who knows how many were actually infected? Various other studies show no protection. The big risk is that circumcision is going to make men think they don’t need condoms (and less willing to use them) – a recipe for disaster.

  • scribbler

    Quote: “The big risk is that circumcision is going to make men think they don’t need condoms (and less willing to use them) – a recipe for disaster.”

    MeNow: This I agree with, but I would add that it is a potential recipe for disaster, if this issue isn’t properly addressed. The up side is that if a person is in for the operation, they are subject to education…

    There have been more than three studies. They weren’t targeted at AIDS but yielded data none the less.

    327 cut/673 total drop outs=48.6% cut and 51.4% uncut of those who dropped out. Of course 50/50 would be a perfect split but I’d have to side with those who counted this drop out number as statistically insignificant, being nearly perfectly divided…

    Anyway, and again, monogamy/abstinence are the best preventative measures. All other means only reduce risks.

    It is, of course up to the sexual practitioner what risk are acceptable to them and what are not. Still, I find what I see as an unscientific opposition to circumcision among some. If someone has chosen to have the operation to help reduce their risk of catching their death, I certainly do not find nearly enough information to tell them it is useless…

    Still, personal bias must be considered as a factor in any human truth, mustn’t it?

    I thank you for the opportunity to tout education and self control!

    Who opposes that?


  • Frank OHara

    There is a simple matter of epidemology to consider here. Circumcision is said to have the same effect as a vaccine ie., the claim is it interupts the vectors of transmission. In actual practice, this has been shown to be not true.

    The Salk Vaccine against polio has a 70% effective rate against a far more communicable virus. If male circumcision has the effect claimed, we should observe a similar result. Yet, with 80% of American males circumcised, the disease has not only established itself in our population, it has spread widely. It should have never had a chance to become established much less spread. This tells us that male circumcision is a worthless intervention against HIV. It also has shown no promise anywhere else in the world. If it were effective as claimed, there would be stark differences in circumcised and uncircumcised populations. These differences are observed no where in the world.

    Why would these studies garner such attention? Robert Bailey and Daniel Halperin are the driving forces behind the studies and the unending publicity campaign. Both Bailey and Halperin are on the record as promoting male circumcision for at least 25 years, long before anything was known about HIV. It appears to be a sexual perversion.


  • Geile Frau

    The attention is lost and most of media don’t tell us, but still the african continent suffers from this virus. Will there be ever a solution?


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