Circumcision:It suits Hindus also
NEW DELHI: Fear of raking up a communal controversy has made the health ministry keep mum about an international study which suggests that circumcised men are less prone to HIV infection.
While the study – which says HIV rates among those not circumcised are two to eight times higher than in those groups which practice circumcision – may have a significant bearing on the country’s AIDS-prevention programme, government seems to be keeping a distance from it lest it is accused of ‘appeasement.’
Conducted by France’s National AIDS Research Agency in South Africa between 2002 and 2005, findings of the study were made public on July 26 at the 3rd International AIDS conference on HIV treatment in Rio de Janeiro.
Indian officials, who were present at the conference, agree that circumcision is a hygienic practice but they are loath to be seen as endorsing it because of its strong association with Muslims.
Speaking to TOI, a senior official conceded as much: “Over 25% of people in Europe go for circumcision for protection against AIDS. But in India, we cannot encourage it because of its association with Muslims. Leave alone implementing it, even agreeing with the study would mean being attacked by Hindus. Then, we also don’t want to make the bulk of the Muslim population feel that they can be safe with unprotected sex.”
Ministry officials refer to the experience of Richard Feachem, executive director of Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS.
Recently, Feachem received thousands of hate mails when he made a statement in Paris, backed by a study, that he expected the epidemic to grow faster among Hindus because they didn’t practise circumcision. One sharp reaction had come from BP Singhal of the BJP.
“This is obnoxious. We are not going to tolerate such remarks made against Hindus,” Singhal had said in protest against Feachem’s remark.
Even health minister A Ramadoss received …
…a letter from VHP leader Giriraj Kishore seeking to know whether India had commissioned a similar study.
“We did receive a letter from (him). We have also replied to him. No such tests are taking place in India,” a ministry official said.
On condition of anonymity, officials also cited figures to show how Muslim countries, where circumcision is prevalent, have very low number of AIDS patients.
“We strongly believe that the AIDS figures in Muslim countries are extraordinarily low because of circumcision. While 0.92% of the adult population in India is HIV+, the number is 0.1% in Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan, 0.2% in Bangladesh and 0.4% in Malaysia. Circumcision can prevent six to seven out of 10 potential HIV infections,” another official added.
Using caution, officials also pointed out that circumcision of men will not stop women from getting the disease. “At present, 40% of all AIDS patients are women. So Muslim men are still vulnerable.”
The French agency circumcised about half of 3,000 subjects for the study, while the rest remained uncircumcised. After 21 months, 51 members of the uncircumcised group had contracted HIV while only 18 members of the circumcised group had the disease.
“There had always been theories that male circumcision prevented AIDS, but this was the first study using control trials. Though the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS took considerable interest in the results of the trial, UNAIDS has said it is too early to encourage widespread circumcision as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS. Lately, there has been heightened interest in male circumcision from governments in a number of African countries,” an official said.
Researchers believe circumcision helps cut the risk of infection because the foreskin is covered in HIV 1 cells that the virus easily infects. At present, at least three more studies are underway to confirm the effectiveness of circumcision.
WHO is also working on guidelines for qualified medical personnel to conduct safe circumcision as demand for the operation has started to increase in the West.