Africa: Time for a Male Circumcision-Driven HIV Policy in Africa?

After overcoming much skepticism, the idea that male circumcision is an effective measure in reducing HIV transmission is now globally accepted by the health professionals community and the general public. In fact, the World Health Organization is now advocating circumsision programme as part of the HIV prevention package in areas greatly affected by the virus.

However, the jury is still out on how the measure will be adopted by the target populations given their cultural specificity. Experts and bloggers weigh in on the practicality and the effectiveness of a male circumcision-driven public health policy.

A proven approach 

Even though the approach has been suggested for a decade, the validation that medical male circumcision substantially reduces the risk of contracting HIV is fairly recent. Three randomized clinical trials were conducted in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. In 2007, The WHO and the UNAIDS provided the following comment on the results of the study:

 There is now strong evidence from three randomized controlled trials undertaken (..) that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%. This evidence supports the findings of numerous observational studies that have also suggested that the geographical correlation long described between lower HIV prevalence and high rates of male circumcision in some countries in Africa, and more recently elsewhere, is, at least in part, a causal association.

Some newly developed technological devices may even facilitate the deployment of this policy. Donald G McNeil Jr of The New York Times recently reported that:

a bloodless circumcision device for adults, will be tested in at least nine African countries in the next year [..] a two-nurse team slides a grooved ring inside the foreskin and guides a rubber band to compress the foreskin in the groove. After a week, the dead foreskin falls off like the stump of a baby’s umbilical cord

Still, not all the scientific community is convinced that this policy is the right direction to take in the fight against HIV. For instance many argue that such a policy would be offset by increased HIV risk behaviour, such as reduced condom use or increased numbers of sex partners. In a journal article, Kalichman et al. write:

Circumcision likely reduces the risk of acquiring a non-HIV STI and may be partially responsible for the decreased HIV risk observed in circumcision RCTs [1]. Nevertheless, the failure of models to account for increased STI risk due to risk compensation likely inflates estimates of averted HIV infections. Estimates of HIV risks resulting from increased exposure to STIs that coincide with reductions in condom use have been included in previous models of the cost-effectiveness of HIV prevention interventions [11] and should be included in MC models.

Cultural challenges 

Despite those recommendations, the approach still encounters many challenges to getting implemented in many countries. Ugandan global health graduate Edgar Asiimwe shares his findings regarding the willingness of young men to undergo safe male circumcision in Uganda, in this video uploaded to YouTube by user  on 10 July, 2012. In the video, Asiimwe explains that the Ugandan government still favors prevention programs based on abstinence which makes implementing medical circumcision difficult to implement:

In South Africa, traditional circumcision is still carried out, however, the circumcision often only partially removes the foreskin from the penis. Maughan-Brown et al. explain the results of their study in Cape Town:

Partially circumcised men had a 7% point greater risk of being HIV positive than fully circumcised men (P < 0.05) and equal risk compared with uncircumcised men. Most (91%) men were circumcised between the ages of 17 and 22 years (mean 19.2 years), and HIV risk increased with age of circumcision (P < 0.10).

Efforts should be made to encourage earlier circumcisions and to work with traditional surgeons to reduce the number of partial circumcisions.

In some of areas of Madagascar, circumcision is also a tradition. The traditional method of circumcision may carry some health concerns and differs vastly from medical circumcision. Arinaina explains [fr]:

 La circoncision se fait au crépuscule d’où le feu et les bougies. Tous les hommes, le grand-père, le papa, les oncles sont là pour préparer tout ce qui est nécessaire au rituel et assister l’enfant en le tenant bien fort. Un dernier homme est aussi présent; le guérisseur traditionnel ou le « rain-jaza » qui va couper avec sa lame le prépuce. [..]  la circoncision à Madagascar, c’est surtout pour que le garçon devienne un «vrai homme».

Circumcision is carried out at dawn hence the need for candles and fire. All the family men, the grandfather, the father, the uncles are present to prepare all that is necessary for the ritual and help hold the child still. Another man is also present, the traditional healer who will cut off the child's foreskin.
Painting of a circumcision in Madagascar by Arianiana (used with permission)

Painting of a circumcision in Madagascar by Arianiana (used with permission)

HIV prevalence is relatively low in Madagascar compared to the other southern African states and it is possible that the cultural acceptance of circumcision plays a part in keeping HIV at low levels. This was not the case early on in Kenya though. June Odoyo, a member of the Nyanza Province Male Circumcision Task Force,  explains:

Despite initial resistance from cultural leaders in the region, male circumcision has been widely accepted in Nyanza, with more than 110,000 men undergoing the procedure since 2008 [..] Rural areas experience high cases of cultural resistance to the programme, while the acceptability in urban areas is comparatively high.

Increase in demand for circumcision may have been sparked by young men's desire to have unprotected sex. A study in Malawi explains that dislike for condoms was a factor in undergoing circumcision. For instance, Peter states:

so I see that most of my friends have a tendency of having sex with different kinds of women, so I do
take part in explaining to them to say; I think maybe the best thing is maybe if you can consider
this circumcision. Maybe you can be half way protected. Because there are other people who
don't like to use condoms but they want to have sex with a woman plain [no condom on].

While health policy advocates always emphasize that circumcision is by no means meant to replace the use of condoms, one has to wonder how many men would forego the use of condoms because they have undergone circumcision.

More convincing needed?

Beside the issue of potential reduction in condom use, other doubts were raised by bloggers regarding the inclusion of male circumcision in HIV prevention policy. Jason Bosch, a South African scientist in Cape Town, argues:

If you tell someone it will reduce their risk then they’re more likely to take the risk. After my post I heard from a colleague of mine who has read the paper that at least one of the trials was flawed because those undergoing circumcision where educated on safe sex practices while the others were not.

James Sweet, a blogger from the United States that has lived in Ethiopia, adds:

Given the sociopolitical pressures to justify circumcision, I suspect this data might be exaggerated, but there does seem to be something to it. This, of course, is weighed against the direct risk of complications from the procedure, which are rare but not unheard of.



  • Jackieno

    Male circumcision is NOT a method of HIV prevention. The CUT US has a much higher HIV than natural EU. That should be that.

    In the real world, cutting off parts of a man’s genitals has not cut the risk of female-to-male transmission of HIV. It has actually increased the spread of HIV/AIDS.

    Bombshell Study on Circumcision from Puerto Rico
    “Circumcised men have accumulated larger numbers of STI in their lifetime, have higher rates of previous diagnosis of warts, and were more likely to have HIV infection.”

    In Zimbabwe, after a circumcision campaign (as per the WHO), the cut men have higher rates of HIV. It does NOT WORK . The practice removes thousands of nerves, shuts down part of the human sensory system and gives men ED at a young age.

    Let us also not ignore the fact that In 2009 a circ pushing team (Wawer/Gra-y) reported that the Ugandan men they cut were 50% MORE likely to infect their female partners.

    The numbers show, that HIV transmission was more prevalent among the circumcised.Cameroon (4.1% v 1.1%), Ghana (1.6% v 1.4%), Lesotho (22.8% v 15.2%), Malawi (13.2% v 9.5%), Rwanda (3.5% v 2.1%), and, Swaziland (21.8% v 19.5%). IN a Kenya study circumcision status was not associated with HIV or HSV-2 seroprevalence or current genital ulceration. The US DHS Comparative Reports No. 22 showed no clear pattern of association between male circumcision and HIV prevalence. In 8 of 18 countries with data, HIV prevalence is lower among circumcised men, while in the remaining 10 countries HIV prevalence is higher among circumcised men.”

    There is also the fact that it is not cleaner to have a cut up penis. The most recent info indicates that a cut penis is actually less clean. A new study found that natural boys have natural bacteria (the same as girls) and cut boys have different invasive bacteria.

  • The case is not nearly as closed as you imagine. A new study from Puerto Rico found circumcised men there were MORE likely to have STDS and HIV. A study in Uganda by Wawer, Gray, et al. started to find that circumcising men INcreases the risk to women, but that was cut short for no good reason before that could be confirmed. In 10 out of 18 countries for which USAID has figures, more of the circumcised men have HIV than the non-circumcised. There are many problems with the three trials, such as drop-out rates several times higher than infection rates.

    Circumcision has always been an intervention looking for an excuse, more recently a “cure” in search of a disase, and nothing has changed, except that its advocates (almost all circumcised men who, like the fox who lost his tale in Aesop’s fable, can’t bear other men having something they lack) are now working in concert.

    The danger of “risk compensation” – men thinking circumcision has made them immune and throwing caution to the winds – is everywhere, even at the AIDS 2012 Conference in Washington DC last month. They flew in a poster-boy for circumcision, Angelo Kaggwa from Uganda, and he said,

    “Now I have no worries if I have an opportunity and I have forgotten to bring along a condom”

    Circumcision honchos Daniel Halperin, Bertran Auvert and Robert Bailey were in the audience, and not one of them corrected him!

  • ml66uk

    From a USAID report:
    “There appears no clear pattern of association between male circumcision and HIV prevalence—in 8 of 18 countries with data, HIV prevalence is lower among circumcised men, while in the remaining 10 countries it is higher.”

    It seems highly unrealistic to expect that there will be no risk compensation. The South African National Communication Survey on HIV/AIDS, 2009 found that 15% of adults across age groups “believe that circumcised men do not need to use condoms”.

    It is unclear if circumcised men are more likely to infect women. The only ever randomized controlled trial into male-to-female transmission showed a 54% higher rate in the group where the men had been circumcised:

    ABC (Abstinence, Being faithful, and especially Condoms) is the way forward. Promoting genital surgery seems likely to cost African lives rather than save them.

  • More lies and distortions by the people who will profit. No studies in the U.S. show any decrease in HIV or STD’s from circumcision. Actually, there is overall a higher rate of STD’s in circumcised males esp. urethritis. Why do journalists, if they can be called that, print propaganda instead of doing a balanced article? Where is their integrity and ethics? Follow the money trail. And, no, most physicians and lay public do not believe HIV is prevented or decreased by circumcision. Condoms and behavioral changes will decrease sexually transmitted HIV. Half the males in the poorly done African studies did not get HIV from sex. The studies are meaningless. More hype and fear mongering to try to bring the rate of circumcision up in this country.

  • Papakim

    I am a living testimony that circumcision assists in preventing HIV infection. My wife and Lived apart for only 3 moths and she picked the virus during this time. We linked up and lived together for 8 months during which time she fell pregnant. She was diagnosed HIV positive during prenatal tests. It is almost two years now. She had a miscarriage thereafter and we are now separated. I am HIV negative and the doctors attributed this miracle to circumcision.

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.