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Claim: Circumcision reduces female-to-male HIV risk by seventy percent

RAW STORY

In a potentially major breakthrough in the campaign against AIDS, French and South African researchers have apparently found that male circumcision reduces by about 70% the risk that men will contract HIV through intercourse with infected women, the (paid restricted) Wall Street Journal reports Monday, with caveats. The study does not address sex between gay men. Excerpts follow.

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Other than abstinence and safer sex, almost nothing has been proved to reduce the sexual spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. World-wide, the major route of HIV transmission for many years has been heterosexual sex.

Vaccine developers have said they would consider an AIDS vaccine with just 30% efficacy useful. But so far, no effective vaccine against the disease has been developed, leaving AIDS workers desperate for another tool to help them stem the tide of new infections, estimated at almost five million last year.

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The circumcision findings were so dramatic that the data and safety monitoring board overseeing the research halted the study in February, about nine months before it would have been completed, on the grounds that it would be immoral to proceed without offering the uncircumcised control group the opportunity to undergo the procedure. While men were directly protected from infection by circumcision, women could benefit indirectly because circumcision would reduce the chances their partners would be HIV-positive.

Researchers in the field have been aware of the study's basic findings, but they haven't been published, so most experts haven't evaluated them. The British medical journal the Lancet decided against publishing the study, but for reasons unrelated to the data and scientific content, according to people familiar with the matter. Lancet officials, following standard policy at the journal, refused to comment on why the study was turned down.

The fact that an independent board ordered the study halted is considered a strong sign that the science is sound. Bertran Auvert, the French researcher who headed the trial, declined to discuss the findings but is expected to present them later this month at an International AIDS Society conference in Brazil.

Still, the fact that the research hasn't yet been published makes experts in the field wary about commenting. "Confirm, confirm, confirm," said Seth Berkley, a veteran HIV researcher and president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. But if the study holds up, said Dr. Berkley, who wasn't involved with the research, it would be "quite important" because circumcision would be "an intervention that works over a person's lifetime and could reduce HIV in a community setting."

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The debate has festered since 1986. To read more about circumcision and AIDS research, click here.

Originally published on Tuesday July 5, 2005.

 


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