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Researchers shed light on how circumcision helps prevent HIV

Category: HIV

When most people think of ways to prevent contracting sexually transmitted diseases, they probably think of the basics - practicing abstinence, using condoms and regularly utilizing STD testing services. For decades, researchers have been searching for other ways to help reduce the risk of STDs, and one that has been discussed for a number of years is circumcision.

While circumcision is usually a cultural or personal choice that parents make, some healthcare professionals have said that it may also be based on health risks. Recently, researchers from the Translational Genomics Research Institute conducted a study which found that circumcision may change the bacterial community on the penis, effectively reducing the risk of contracting HIV.

A complicated issue
This is not the first time that circumcision has been associated with a reduced chance of getting HIV. According to Medical Daily news, past studies have shown that circumcision may reduce the risk of HIV infection in men by 50 to 60 percent. However, the issue of circumcision remains a controversial one. The prevalence of this procedure differs greatly among countries and ethnic groups. For example, in the U.S. more than 80 percent of boys were circumcised in the 1980s, compared to only slightly over 15 percent in U.K.

For this study, researchers examined 156 men, all of whom were circumcised as adults. They found that one year after getting circumcised, the bacteria on their penises dropped by more than 33 percent. Furthermore, the population of anaerobic bacteria - the type that live in oxygen-deprived environments - decreased dramatically while the amount of aerobic bacteria - the kind that need oxygen - increased.

The scientists said that they believe that uncircumcised men have high bacteria counts that activate Langerhans cells in the foreskin. The researchers explained that these cells are usually the first line of defense against infections, but when they are activated they may also bring about the specific cells that HIV attempts to target, facilitating the transmission of HIV.

The researchers explained this is about more than just circumcision.

"The work that we're doing, by potentially revealing the underlying biological mechanisms, could reveal alternatives to circumcision that would have the same biological impact. In other words, if we find that it's a group of anaerobes that are increasing the risk for HIV, we can find alternative ways to bring down those anaerobes and prevent HIV infection in all sexually active men," said researcher Lance Price, Ph.D.

More on circumcision and HIV
In 2012, Time magazine published an article explaining that if circumcision rates drop in the U.S., it may lead to billions of additional healthcare costs and an increase in the number of men with STDs. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that if circumcision rates drop to as low as 10 percent, then HIV rates, HPV infections and herpes rates will all rise drastically.

The scientists added that a drop to 10 percent is not entirely unlikely, since rates have already gone from 80 percent in the 1980s to 55 percent in 2010.

Circumcision is not the only way to help reduce the risk of HIV and STDs. The choice to circumcise a baby is a very personal one that should be left up to families. However, while all men should practice safer sex by using condoms, men who are not circumcised should be particularly careful, and regularly use STD testing services to make sure that they have not contracted any dangerous infections or viruses.

Also, circumcision is often performed on babies, but can be done at any age, so men who are interested can talk to their doctor.

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