Only a few weeks ago, the owners of the company that makes PrePex 'bloodless' circumcision devices (effectively, a plastic ring and a rubber band) were happily plugging their ware, a difficult process of persuading journalists to regurgitate an entire press release without any research or criticism. This time, the press release was set in Uganda and a researcher, presumably one not versed in the skills of PR, claimed that "We have so far tested it on about 50 clients but we need 250 more to confirm its acceptability but so far it has worked properly with those who used it". No need for any Ugandans to worry, then.
But alas, some of the main proponents of circumcision, who are also some of the main recipients of the copious millions of dollars available for the mass male circumcision programs in Africa, have announced that "The PrePex Device Is Unlikely to Achieve Cost-Savings Compared to the Forceps-Guided Method in Male Circumcision Programs in Sub-Saharan Africa". They were even generous enough to make the findings available in a free peer-reviewed source. This is all the more remarkable when you consider how most research relating to mass male circumcision is made available: selectively, at the convenience of those who collected the data, rather than that of anyone who may wish to scrutinize it.
Of course, this may be just a bit of a spat between those who prefer to know that scalpels are used (who currently receive the lion's share of funding) and those who don't give a toss how the operation is carried out as long as they make lots of money out of it. The paper by Walter Obiero, Marisa Young and Robert Bailey claims that at $45-50, the PrePex method is "unlikely to result in significant cost-savings". The authors declare no competing interest, unless the fact that at least one of them is a founder of the Nyanza Reproductive Health Society, which provided some of the funding for the research, represents some kind of competing interest.
The $45-50 figure is interesting. According to an article from the UK's National Secular Society, hospitals in Sheffield are going to start charging for non-medical circumcision. They carry out fewer than 200 per year, which is surprising enough, but they expect to save nearly $1,600 per operation. Could it really cost 32 times more to carry out a circumcision in an English hospital? I can imagine costs are lower in African countries, for lots of reasons, but I wonder what, exactly, will be excluded from the mass circumcision campaigns to keep the costs so low. I wonder also if Sheffield could be induced to reconsider their decision if they could offer the operation so cheaply, and how many people would then take them up on it.
One person commenting on Sheffield's decision feels that this may give rise to 'backstreet operations'. But in African countries where circumcision is already carried out for tribal reasons, almost all circumcisions are 'backstreet operations', carried out by someone with no medical training, often without sterile instruments. The several billion dollars on offer for mass male circumcision programs in African countries are mainly available in areas where circumcision is not routinely carried out already.
A spokesperson for the National Health Service said: "Non-therapeutic circumcisions are not clinical interventions and as a group, we would not want anybody to undergo a medical procedure if there was no specific clinical need." A spokesperson for the National Secular Society said "We believe that non-therapeutic circumcision should not be permitted until the boy is old enough to give informed consent." These guys have evidently never heard about the US government's plans for African males.
Most articles promoting mass male circumcision for high HIV prevalence African countries claim that "results from three trials in sub-Saharan Africa, including one from Rakai, Uganda, showed that circumcision could reduce HIV transmission from positive women to negative male partners by up to 60 percent". This is not what the trials showed. HIV transmission was lower in the group that was circumcised than in the group that was not. But the trial did not show that all transmission was a result of sexual contact. Some may have been through unsterile healthcare, reused medical equipment, etc. Perhaps more importantly, at least one of the trials suggests that HIV transmission increased in the control group, rather than decreasing in the intervention group.
It seems hard to believe that current interest in promoting mass male circumcision to reduce HIV transmission from females to males could be based entirely on the evidence for the effectiveness of such a strategy, because the evidence is extremely mixed so far. It seems equally hard to believe that the whole thing is just a money earner for those competing for funding. But there is a lot of money involved. You might expect the Nyanza Reproductive Health Society to be unworried about whether PrePex is used, or some other method. But the difference in cost could be about 10%, some $100,000,000. So how much does something have to be worth to be a 'competing interest'?
[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission and mass male circumcision, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]