Can Circumcision Prevent the Spread of Herpes, HPV, Other STDs?


Circumcising your baby boy may protect against future sexually transmitted infections.


Men who are circumcised are less likely to get sexually transmitted infections such as genital herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV), but not syphilis.

This finding—published in a March, 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine—adds to the evidence that there are health benefits to circumcision, the surgical removal of the penis foreskin, usually performed on newborns shortly after birth. It was already known that circumcision can reduce the risk of penile cancer, a relatively rare disease, as well as the risk of HIV infection.

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But in the United States, newborn circumcision is an elective procedure, and rates are declining. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed evidence of the potential risks, benefits, and costs of circumcision, and declined to recommend the procedure for all newborns.

Circumcision should never be performed strictly because it seems to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, experts agree, and it’s important to note that circumcision should not be considered appropriate protection. Practicing safe sex, including using condoms, is still necessary to provide the best protection, whether a person is circumcised or not.

Still, many scientists are hoping that this new research may persuade recommending bodies, both in the United States and around the world, to give the circumcision’s benefits another look.

Circumcision remains a controversial topic
In the United States, infant circumcision is declining. About 64% of American male infants were circumcised in 1995, down from more than 90% in the 1970s. Rates tend to be higher in whites (81%) than in blacks (65%) or Hispanics (54%).

Some opponents say the removal of the foreskin is an unnecessary surgical procedure that may reduce sexual sensitivity in adulthood. In Jewish and Muslim cultures, young or infant boys are routinely circumcised for religious reasons. Circumcision rates have traditionally been higher in the U.S. than in Europe, but the American Academy of Pediatrics currently says that the medical benefits are insufficient to recommend circumcision for all baby boys.

Study coauthor Thomas C. Quinn, MD, professor of global health at Johns Hopkins University, says that choosing circumcision, whether it’s the parents of an infant or an adult male for himself, is and should remain an individual decision.

“But the critics need to really look at the benefits versus the risks,” he adds. “By now a large body of evidence has shown that the health benefits clearly outweigh the minor risk associated with the surgery. In our study, we didn’t see any adverse effects or mutilation. We’re recommending supervised, safe, sterile environments—not circumcision out in an open field with rusty instruments.”

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