for National Geographic News
Circumcised men may be much less likely to contract HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through sex with infected women, a new study says.
Speaking yesterday at an International AIDS Society conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, French AIDS researcher Bertran Auvert presented the study's findings, which are based on 3,273 South African men.
The results show that circumcised men in the study were 63 percent less likely than uncircumcised men to be infected through sex with HIV-positive women. That's a far better level of protection than the 30 percent reduction risk set as a target for an AIDS vaccine.
Auvert urged the promotion of circumcision as a public health initiative in Africa. "The first thing to do is to offer safe male circumcision to those who want to be circumcised. We must adapt the health system so that it can afford male circumcision," said Auvert, who works for the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Saint-Maurice, France.
Robert Bailey, an epidemiology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, hailed the study as a wakeup call.
"If the international public health community was not alert before, this will surely wake them up to a possible intervention that could be more effective than any vaccine that might be developed over the next ten years," he said.
Bailey is leading a similar study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in Kenya.
Best Evidence Yet
The idea that male circumcision provides significant protection against HIV infection is not new. Auvert's report "is an interesting confirmation of a long-standing hypothesis, which if confirmed could potentially have a major impact on preventing new infections in men," said Seth Berkley, the president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York.
Several dozen previous studies in Africa have shown that circumcised men are two to nine times less likely to become infected by women with the virus than uncircumcised men are. But with its sample group of 3,000 men, Auvert's study is by far the most extensive to date.
"Male circumcision must be recognized as an important means to fight the spread of HIV infection and the international community must mobilize to promote it," Auvert wrote in the abstract of his presentation in Rio de Janeiro.
Health officials have hesitated to integrate circumcision with other HIV-prevention strategies, because the practice has strong cultural and religious implications. The procedure also carries the risk of complications if performed incorrectly or in unsanitary conditions.
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