Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Circumcision: 1.1 Million Kenyans Tricked Into Being Human Guinea Pigs

Some of the highly dubious pronouncements about HIV programs can be taken with a pinch of salt and I certainly hope that's true of the mass male circumcision program taking place among the Luo tribe in Nyanza province, Kenya. About a year ago they were claiming to have circumcised about 100,000 men. Now the figure has risen to 250,000, 40,000 of them said to have taken place over the last few weeks.

The argument is that men are less likely to be infected with HIV if they are circumcised. There is little evidence for this and how, exactly, the process may work, is unknown. But on the slight chance that it may work, the program is going ahead. Aside from the fact that the HIV industry really wants to do it, it is not clear why this program was ever started.

We are constantly told it is 'cost effective' and will prevent hundreds of thousands of infections over the next 20 years. However, this projection depends on a lot of assumptions that are completely unsupported by evidence. And lots of things are 'cost effective', such as reducing diarrhea and intestinal parasite rates, which infect far more people, kill more people and cost even less to prevent and treat. But cost effectiveness doesn't seem to count in those instances.

Male circumcision is rare among members of the Luo tribe and HIV prevalence is high, so this is seen as a good argument for circumcision. However, female genital mutilation (FGM) is also rare. I don't hear anyone calling for mass FGM just because of this correlation. Not that I think FGM is a good thing, I don't. I think it is an appalling form of gender based violence that has none of the benefits claimed for it.

However, two other tribes in Nyanza province, the Kuria and the Kisii, have low HIV prevalence. And most of the men are circumcised. But many, perhaps most, of the women are victims of FGM. And the lowest HIV prevalence found in Kenya is among the ethnic Somalis, who also practice male circumcision and FGM widely.

Clearly, there are other circumstances that surround low HIV rates and high rates of FGM. FGM is most commonly practiced where levels of education are low, people are exceptionally poor and they are isolated from health and other public services. But there are other circumstances high rates of HIV and low rates of male circumcision, too.

Are these arguments for reducing education and health and increasing poverty? I wouldn't have thought so. But if you make projections using the figures for the Northeastern province, which has the lowest HIV rates in the country, you might find that such measures are 'cost effective' when it comes to reducing HIV rates.

Recent research in Tanzania has found that HIV rates are, indeed, lower among women who have undergone FGM of some kind. Indeed, the level of 'protection' given by FGM is curiously similar to that claimed for male circumcision. So if this is not a valid argument for FGM, maybe it's time to reconsider male circumcision?

Given current data, Kenyan Luos are being used in a large scale public health experiment that is undoubtedly unethical. As to the consequences of the experiment, it's too early to say. But if I was a Luo I'd be careful of people wielding scalpels. Just use condoms. You'll still have to do that when you are circumcised, anyway.



Eric Wanaju said...

Good argument there. I was circumcised before I could make a good decision. I was 11. I still have to use condoms so I don't know why anybody is trying to justify mutilating others by claiming it will be less risky to get HIV infection. It does not mean that because there is less HIV prevalence rates in Kisii and KIkuyu communities, the difference is caused by circumcision. There are many other differences like wife inheritance and you cannot tell for sure.

Simon said...

Thanks Eric, your comment is right on target. I have just returned from Nyanza, where some people are a bit mystified. Unfortunately, many are convinced circumcision works well enough for them to go through the operation. The only people I met who are not very convinced are those implementing the program; they know the evidence is weak. So they are busy manufacturing more. It's still a big experiment, but Luos don't seem to know that. But with all that money behind it, I'm sure the program will be very 'successful'.