February 25, 2007

Promoting Male Circumcision for Hindus

This blog has dealt with ethical questions about male circumcision and HIV before, but somehow the assumption crept in that this is a distinctively African controversy. Maybe it was because of the high HIV prevalence in that part of the world. Maybe its was because of the longstanding interest -- especially among anthropologists -- with circumcision rituals in Africa. Let us make a confession here: the author of this post has co-authored an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics called Male Circumcision and HIV Infection: Ethical, Medical and Public Health Tradeoffs in Low-Income Countries. And it too is guilty of identifying the issue a bit too much with sub-Saharan Africa.

Whatever way this came about, the ethical questions concerning the promotion of male circumcision to lower risk of HIV transmission have to embrace India. For one thing, the number of new HIV infections has rising in India dramatically over the last years. For another thing, male circumcision is a highly charged matter, both politically and religiously, when Hindus do not traditionally circumcise and Muslims do.

An article in the Times of India today gives an indication of just how sensitive the question is. The National AIDS Control program in India will not even think of conducting randomized controlled trial to test whether being circumcised lowers a man's risk of getting HIV infected: not because three such studies have been done before, but the whole idea seems too hot to handle. When Richard Feachem, Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said that he expected that Hindus would increasingly have more HIV infections because their men do not get circumcised, his inbox was inundated by hate mail. The issue is inseparable from the larger relationship between mainly Hindu India and its Muslim neighbor and rival, Pakistan. The foreskin has geopolitical significance.

The question is: when circumcision acts as a religious/cultural marker from neighboring groups, will men still agree to do it, to reduce their chances of getting HIV? A World Health Organization/UNAIDS meeting in Switzerland on March 6 is set to tackle these tradeoffs between cultural identity and public health, among others. When HIV infections globally are increasing, vaccines are probably at least 10 years away, and the once-promising microbicides are crashing and burning, the ancient practice of male circumcision is strangely enough carrying the torch in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
-Stuart Rennie

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