Is Circumcision the Best Way to Prevent HIV in Africa?

Robert Bailey, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Illinois at Chicago

Circumcision is the most effective and promising tool that currently exists to prevent the spread of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in developing countries, an international health consultant and medical researcher said at a global health lecture on campus Wednesday afternoon.

The lecture, entitled “The Cutting Edge of HIV Prevention in Africa,” was the first of the Global Health Lecture Series and was cosponsored by the School of Public Health, Feinberg School of Medicine, International Program Development, and the Center for Civic Engagement.

Though there are several prevention tools such as behavior modification programs to promote using condoms or abstaining from sex, “The only truly evidence-based strategy that we have is male circumcision,” said Robert Bailey, who is also a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a research associate at the Field Museum and co-director of the Chicago Center for AIDS Research. Other methods of prevention either don’t have the research to showcase their efficacy or have been found unsuccessful, he said, and a vaccine will not likely be invented soon.

But with 34 million people worldwide infected with HIV and 68 percent of those in Sub-Saharan Africa, preventive measures must be taken immediately. 5,000 men are newly infected each day in Africa, a number that health care professionals must slow down, Bailey said to the audience of 30 students, professors and community members who gathered in the Program of African Studies building on campus to hear him speak.

“We cannot treat our way out of this epidemic,” he said. “But we must find ways to prevent it from spreading.

One of those ways is clear, he said: The simple, cost-effective surgery of circumcision has been clinically proven to be both consistent and powerful in preventing HIV. According to evidence from three randomized controlled trials undertaken in Kisumu, Kenya, Rakai District, Uganda and Orange Farm, South Africa, uncircumcised men are two and a half times more likely to contract the HIV virus than those who are circumcised. Plus, unlike daily pills or other therapies, “once you’re circumcised you’re circumcised for the rest of your life,” he said, which makes it a one-time, inexpensive treatment (it costs about $50) that has lasting benefits.

After seeing the striking results of the clinical trials, The World Health Organization and UNAID threw in their endorsement in 2007, recommending that male circumcision now be recognized as an important intervention to reduce the risk of HIV.

But surgery alone is not the solution and must be performed in conjunction with other preventative treatments, Bailey cautioned. He is currently leading efforts funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Government to implement a comprehensive package of HIV prevention services that includes male circumcision along with other tools such as couples counseling and sexually transmitted infection diagnosis in western Kenya.

Not only is circumcision effective in preventing the spread of HIV, it is also helpful in reducing sexually transmitted infections, genital herpes, genital ulcers and cervical cancer in women, among other things. And through implementing this comprehensive circumcision program, health care professionals will also have the opportunity to reach out and educate men and women on HIV and improve the health care infrastructure in Africa.

Bailey and his team have already performed 140,000 circumcisions in Kenya during the last 14 months and hope to perform 900,000 over the next 10 years. “My goal since 1994 when I first got into this was to show that [circumcision] is effective and implement it,” he said. “And now it’s happening.”

For more information on the Global Health Lecture Series, please visit http://globalhealthportal.northwestern.edu/news-and-events/events-archive.

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