There has been considerable debate as to whether circumcision (removal of a male’s foreskin) protects men - and their partners - from diseases. Recent research does indeed suggest that it does.
Circumcision is one of the oldest surgical operations known to man - and one of the few matters, it seems, about which both Moslems and Jews are in agreement.
However, the idea that the operation has health benefits has been for many years a matter of controversy even among members of the medical profession. Opinions have swung back and forth, but recent evidence appears to suggest that the operation does in fact confer some undeniable benefits.
Urinary tract infections (UTI)
Thomas Wiswell, an American paediatrician, was one of the first to document that male infants who had been circumcised had far less urine infections when compared to uncircumcised male infants. Analysing the medical records of some 400,000 infants, he published his findings in the journal Pediatrics in 1987 - and showed that among the male infants who suffered from UTI, the ratio of uncircumcised boys to those who had been circumcised was ten to one! Admittedly, infection of the urinary tract is much less common in boys when compared to girls - but Wiswell’s findings were certainly significant, particularly because severe urinary tract infections in infancy can lead to kidney problems in later life.
The explanation is that the inner surface of the male prepuce harbours bacteria that are responsible for urine infection - and having such a reservoir of potential pathogens makes uncircumcised boys more susceptible to infection.
HIV and AIDS
Circumcised men have up to 60% lower incidence of HIV infection. The explanation for this is similar - the prepuce has a large number of target cells for the virus. Moreover, being prone to tearing during unprotected sex, a torn or abraded foreskin provides an easy route for the virus to enter the body. Says Professor Roger Short from Melbourne University’s department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, "Circumcision’s protective effect has been proven beyond doubt. Removing the foreskin removes the main site of entry of HIV into the penis."
Cancers of the reproductive tract
Cervical cancer (cancer of the neck of the womb) was for many years noted to be uncommon in women belonging to ethnic and religious groups where men were circumcised. Today we know that this type of cancer of the female reproductive tract is associated with infection by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) - and surveys have shown that uncircumcised men are three times more likely to carry the HPV organism. Having regular sex with uncircumcised men therefore allows the woman to be infected with HPV - and interestingly, recent research studies show over 50% reduction in the risk of cervical cancer among women whose sexual partners are circumcised.
Cancer of the male penis is rare - but significantly, it is hardly ever seen in circumcised males.
The pendulum swings again
During the early twentieth century, circumcising male infants at birth was almost a standard procedure in the United States. At the end of that century for various reasons circumcision rates had fallen significantly.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century however, with the emergence of new research, the operation appears to be coming back into vogue.