On Circumcision Debate, Studies Cut Both Ways

The surgical procedure doesn't reduce common STDs, the latest study finds. Luckily, condoms do.

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A New Zealand study published in the Journal of Pediatrics adds yet another wrinkle to the acrimonious debate over circumcision. The study found that circumcision doesn't appear to protect men living in the developed world from certain sexually transmitted diseases, Reuters reports. Researchers at the University of Otago found that of 499 men they have followed since the 1970s, the same percentage of circumcised men and uncircumcised men—about 23 percent—developed bacterial and viral STDs such as chlamydia, genital warts, and herpes. The researchers didn't collect data on HIV, which is comparatively rare in New Zealand.

Most news in the last few years about circumcision has been dominated by the results of three randomized trials in African countries that found the procedure considerably reduces a man's risk of contracting HIV. In one of the studies, the risk was reduced by as much as 76 percent. Since then, public-health officials in some African countries have been scrambling to develop large-scale circumcision programs. The implications for Americans, however, remain murky. There are differences between the African and North American HIV epidemics, and the CDC has emphasized that benefits seen in the African trials don't necessarily translate to America.

U.S. News Health Editor Dr. Bernadine Healy, a former director of the NIH and the Red Cross, has written the procedure is nothing to fear, much to the chagrin of readers who argue that circumcision carries significant risk, as well as those who oppose circumcision on other grounds.

Future research may resolve the debate over circumcision, but, in the meantime, one thing remains crystal clear. For sexually active men—circumcised or not—it's plain stupid not to wear a condom. Yet even discussing condoms in sex ed classes has become a political football, as my colleague Deborah Kotz has reported.

Bottom line, fellows, is that party hats are still key, regardless of your circumcision status. Latex is best, but if you're allergic, plastic (polyurethane) condoms will do, according to the Mayo Clinic. Don't rely on lambskin, which doesn't protect against HIV. And when you're deciding whether to use a condom, don't forget there are plenty of people out there who don't realize they have an STD—or know they do but lie about it.