Circumcision as a public health policy

At this point it has been established that circumcision reduces female-to-male HIV transmission rates by around 60%. Like it or not, the science is in. Now the question has shifted to being about why it reduces transmission, as well as how we can best introduce circumcision has a public health policy. On the first point, the general answer is that the foreskin is a relatively large surface area subject to tearing and softer (non-keratinized) skin. On the second point, though, I wasn’t aware of any actual policies in place to save the lives of men and women in regions particularly vulnerable to the spread of HIV. As it turns out, multiple sub-Saharan countries have undertaken measures to dramatically increase circumcision rates – though much work is still required:

Zambia is still 75 per cent short of its target of two million circumcisions by 2015. So is Uganda, having completed 1.5 million towards its 4.1 million target. Kenya has achieved its target in numbers – but not among the “right” men.

The donors who are pouring cash into male circumcision following the landmark 2006 study which showed that it reduced the risk of HIV infection by 60 per cent, have neglected a crucial factor – the attitude of women.

A man who gets circumcised is often viewed as a man who is looking to sleep around as much as possible. And, indeed, this has become something of a problem, as HIV rates in some areas have remained steady. This may also be due to men not waiting the necessary 6 week healing period – 40% of newly circumcised men had sex while still healing, actually resulting in an increase in their likelihood of contracting HIV. Furthermore, we may be seeing the problem of moral hazards at play. This is where risk is reduced for one thing or another, so people are less cautious in return. Some examples are playground materials and car safety. In playgrounds, children are often getting hurt as much if not more than in previous years because they’re playing on soft wood chips or rubber, leading them to believe they can fall harder and get hurt less. With cars, safety has greatly increased and deaths have fallen, but accidents remain steady or on the rise. People with seat belts are willing to speed more than those without them.

But the real problem in these sub-Saharan nations is a lack of education and peer support:

Carol Musimami, one of 30 “technical advisers” who counsel the men, said: “You will see the older ones come after dark. They don’t want to be with the youth. We are targeting the 25 to 35-year-olds –they are the ones with the money, they buy the women, they are exposing themselves [to infection]. But they are hard to get. They don’t want others to know,” she says.

Leadership is key. In Kenya, the circumcision programme in Nyanza province in the west – one of the three centres in the landmark 2006 trial that proved its effectiveness – was faltering when Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister and a member of the non-circumcising Luo tribe, responded to protests from tribal elders fearing the loss of their identity by declaring: “We don’t lead with our foreskins, we lead with other faculties. This is a medical issue.”

The speech, in 2008, proved a pivotal moment and more than 500,000 Luos have since been circumcised.

This is a major issue in global health. Science can find all sorts of answers to major problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s all just a matter of policy implementation after that. For instance, Jimmy Carter and WHO launched a campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease in 20 African nations in the 1980’s. The primary approach to this was to make sure people had clean drinking water. With funding, wells were built and larvacide was added. However, one of the biggest pushes was to get people to drink clean water was to give them simple cloth filters. Unfortunately, this came with two problems. One was simply logistical: the filters clogged. The other was that the cloth material was too aesthetically pleasing, so people would often use them as decorative items. When the Carter Center, Precision Fabrics, and DuPont worked together to distribute plain nylon cloth filters (and education), the problem quickly shrank. There were 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm disease in 1986. As of 2005, the number had dropped to 11,000. This underlines the need for cultural understanding in addition to the simple cold science of the matter. Greater peer interaction and promotion of circumcision may be the key in getting places like Zambia to that 2 million goal.

At any rate, I’m very pleased to hear about these ongoing efforts to spread circumcision in developing nations in order to curb the spread of HIV. This is a triumph of common sense, global health initiatives, science, and basic humanity.

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