There's a lot of hype about how circumcision is better for a man's health. But is it really?
Here is Part 2 of our series on myths about circumcision.
NOTE: Primary author is Lillian Dell'Aquila Cannon
Myth: You have to get the baby circumcised because it is really hard to keep a baby's penis clean.
Reality check: In babies, the foreskin is completely fused to the head of the penis. You cannot and should not retract it to clean it, as this would cause the child pain, and is akin to trying to clean the inside of a baby girl's vagina. The infant foreskin is perfectly designed to protect the head of the penis and keep feces out. All you have to do is wipe the outside of the penis like a finger.
Myth: Little boys won't clean under their foreskins and will get infections.
Reality check: The foreskin separates and retracts on its own sometime between age 3 and puberty. Before it retracts on its own, you wipe the outside off like a finger. After it retracts on its own, it will get clean during the boy's shower or bath. Once a boy discovers this cool, new feature of his penis, he will often retract the foreskin himself during his bath or shower, and you can encourage him to rinse it off. But he should not use soap as this upsets the natural balance and is very irritating. There is nothing special that the parents need to do. Most little boys have absolutely no problem playing with their penises in the shower or anywhere else! It was harder to teach my boys to wash their hair than it was to care for their penises. (Camille 2002)
Myth: Uncircumcised penises get smelly smegma.
Reality check: Actually, smegma is produced by the genitals of both women and men during the reproductive years. Smegma is made of sebum and skin cells and lubricates the foreskin and glans in men, and the clitoral hood and inner labia in women. It is rinsed off during normal bathing and does not cause cancer or any other health problems.
Myth: "My uncle wasn't circumcised and he kept getting infections and had to be circumcised as an adult."
Reality check: Medical advice may have promoted infection in uncircumcised males. A shocking number of doctors are uneducated about the normal development of the foreskin, and they (incorrectly) tell parents that they have to retract the baby's foreskin and wash inside it at every diaper change. Doing this tears the foreskin and the tissue (called synechia) that connects it to the head of the penis, leading to scarring and infection.
Misinformation was especially prevalent during the 1950s and 60s, when most babies were circumcised and we didn't know as much about the care of the intact penis, which is why the story is always about someone's uncle. Doing this to a baby boy would be like trying to clean the inside of a baby girl's vagina with Q-tips at every diaper change. Rather than preventing problems, such practices would cause problems by introducing harmful bacteria. Remember that humans evolved from animals, so no body part that required special care would survive evolutionary pressures. The human genitals are wonderfully self-cleaning and require no special care.
Myth: My son was diagnosed with phimosis and so had to be circumcised.
Reality check: Phimosis means that the foreskin will not retract. Since children's foreskins are naturally not retractable, it is impossible to diagnose phimosis in a child. Any such diagnoses in infants are based on misinformation, and are often made in order to secure insurance coverage of circumcision in states in which routine infant circumcision is no longer covered.
Even some adult men have foreskins that do not retract, but as long as it doesn't interfere with sexual intercourse, it is no problem at all, as urination itself cleans the inside of the foreskin.
Phimosis can also be treated conservatively with a steroid cream and gentle stretching done by the man himself, should he so desire it, or, at worst, a slit on the foreskin, rather than total circumcision. (Ashfield 2003) These treatment decisions can and should be made by the adult man.
Myth: Uncircumcised boys get more urinary tract infections (UTIs.)
Reality check: This claim is based on one study that looked at charts of babies born in one hospital (Wiswell 1985). The study had many problems, including that it didn't accurately count whether or not the babies were circumcised, whether they were premature and thus more susceptible to infection in general, whether they were breastfed (breastfeeding protects against UTI), and if their foreskins had been forcibly retracted (which can introduce harmful bacteria and cause UTI) (Pisacane 1990). There have been many studies since which show either no decrease in UTI with circumcision, or else an increase in UTI from circumcision. Thus circumcision is not recommended to prevent UTI (Thompson 1990). Girls have higher rates of UTI than boys, and yet when a girl gets a UTI, she is simply prescribed antibiotics. The same treatment works for boys.
Myth: Circumcision prevents HIV/AIDS.
Reality check: Three studies in Africa several years ago that claimed that circumcision prevented AIDS and that circumcision was as effective as a 60% effective vaccine (Auvert 2005, 2006). These studies had many flaws, including that they were stopped before all the results came in. There have also been several studies that show that circumcision does not prevent HIV (Connolly 2008). There are many issues at play in the spread of STDs which make it very hard to generalize results from one population to another.
In Africa, where the recent studies have been done, most HIV transmission is through male-female sex, but in the USA, it is mainly transmitted through blood exposure (like needle sharing) and male-male sex. Male circumcision does not protect women from acquiring HIV, nor does it protect men who have sex with men (Wawer 2009, Jameson 2009).
What's worse, because of the publicity surrounding the African studies, men in Africa are now starting to believe that if they are circumcised, they do not need to wear condoms, which will increase the spread of HIV (Westercamp 2010). Even in the study with the most favorable effects of circumcision, the protective effect was only 60% - men would still have to wear condoms to protect themselves and their partners from HIV.
In the USA, during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, about 85% of adult men were circumcised (much higher rates of circumcision than in Africa), and yet HIV still spread.
It is important to understand, too, that the men in the African studies were adults and they volunteered for circumcision. Babies undergoing circumcision were not given the choice to decide for themselves.
Myth: Circumcision is worth it because it can save lives.
Reality check: Consider breast cancer: There is a 12% chance that a woman will get breast cancer in her lifetime. Removal of the breast buds at birth would prevent this, and yet no one would advocate doing this to a baby. It is still considered somewhat shocking when an adult woman chooses to have a prophylactic mastectomy because she has the breast cancer gene, yet this was a personal choice done based upon a higher risk of cancer. The lifetime risk of acquiring HIV is less than 2% for men, and can be lowered to near 0% through condom-wearing (Hall 2008). How, then, can we advocate prophylactic circumcision for baby boys?
Ashfield, J., et al., Treatment of phimosis with topical steroids in 194 children, JOURNAL OF UROLOGY, Volume 169, Number 3: Pages 1106-1108, March 2003.
Auvert, B. et al., Randomized, controlled intervention trial of male circumcision for reduction of HIV infection risk: the ANRS 1265 Trial, PLoS Med. 2005 Nov;2(11):e298. Epub 2005 Oct 25.
Camille CJ, Kuo RL, Wiener JS. Caring for the uncircumcised penis: What parents (and you) need to know. Contemp Pediatr 2002;11:61.
Connolly, C. et al., Male circumcision and its relationship to HIV infection in South Africa: Results of a national survey in 2002, South African Medical Journal, October 2008, Vol. 98, No. 10.
Hall, H. et al., Estimating the lifetime risk of a diagnosis of the HIV infection in 33 states, 2005-2005; J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 2008;49(3):294-297.
Jameson, D. et al., The Association Between Lack of Circumcision and HIV, HSV-2, and Other Sexually Transmitted Infections Among Men Who Have Sex With Men, Sex Transm Dis. 2009 Nov 6.
Pisacane A, et al. Breastfeeding and urinary tract infection. The Lancet, July 7, 1990, p50.
Thompson RS: Does circumcision prevent urinary tract infection? An opposing view. J Fam Pract 1990; 31: 189-96.
Wawer, M. et al., Circumcision in HIV-infected men and its effect on HIV transmission to female partners in Rakai, Uganda: a randomised controlled trial, The Lancet, Volume 374, Issue 9685, Pages 229 - 237, 18 July 2009.
Westercamp, W., et al., Male Circumcision in the General Population of Kisumu, Kenya: Beliefs about Protection, Risk Behaviors, HIV, and STIs, PLoS ONE 5(12): e15552. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015552
Wiswell TE, Smith FR, Bass JW. Decreased incidence of urinary tract infections in circumcised male infants. Pediatrics 1985, 75: 901-903.