Demands to roll out mass male circumcision programs, claimed to reduce HIV transmission, date back at least 20 years. Other claims about the 'benefits' of circumcision go back centuries. But by the time the programs had started several other interventions had been identified that have a far better claim to reduce HIV transmission.
For example, 'test and treat', the practice of putting everyone who tests positive for HIV on ARVs immediately, is claimed to reduce transmission to a HIV negative sexual partner by 96% or higher. (Note, 90 is something of a magic number in UNAIDSland at the moment, with their 90-90-90 strategy replacing various other magic numbers conjured up in the past.)
PrEP, the practice of giving ARVs to HIV negative people who are thought to be at risk of infection with the virus, is also claimed to reduce transmission to a HIV negative partner by 96%.
If the number of HIV positive people in the world is something around 30 million, depending on which estimates you use, and about half of them are claimed to be on ARVs already, there are still around 15 million who can benefit from ARVs. That's worth, say, a few billion dollars.
Although a lot of those opposed to mass male circumcision don't seem to realize this, many of those promoting circumcision are the same people who promoted behavior based programs, particularly those with an emphasis on 'abstinence'. Those programs, although they never completely died out, were a disaster. Even the people formerly pushing them now admit that they probably had no impact on HIV transmission. But they wanted to find another source of funding to replace the vast amounts that used to go into 'prevention', a lot of which was spent on behavior based rubbish.
Circumcision seemed like the answer because the number of people who could be targeted for circumcision could run into hundreds of millions. Every year millions more male children would be available to keep the programs profitable.
At first the promoters claimed they were only targeting sexually active adults, but they quickly found that most of them didn't want to be circumcised. It was much easier to recruit children and now they can turn their attention to infants.
But with test and treat, coupled with PrEP, how can the circumcision enthusiasts still claim that there is any benefit to the operation? They need to target almost the entire male population in countries where circumcision is not widely practiced. They must carry out the operation on about 75 men for every one claimed reduction in HIV transmission.
The other interventions, test and treat and PrEP, are claimed to be targeted at those most at risk. Let's take a look at who is thought to be most at risk, and see just how many hundreds of millions of people that involves, who would need to be taking these drugs for the rest of their lives in the case of test and treat, and for as long as they are thought to be at risk for PrEP.
In western countries there are few groups who are thought to be at risk. The biggest group is men who have sex with men. The second biggest group is injecting drug users. But aside from commercial sex workers, who are given some choice in prevention options in many rich countries, there are not many others.
The picture is completely different in southern and eastern African countries, with high prevalence and/or large numbers of people infected with HIV. This article about a PrEP program in Kenya says the groups of people claimed to face the highest risk of being infected include:
- Discordant couples (where one partner is HIV positive and one is HIV negative)
- People who frequently contract sexually transmitted infections
- People who are said to be unable to 'negotiate' condom use
- People who frequently use post-exposure prophylaxis (a short course of ARVs for people who suspect they may have been infected, taken within 72 hours of contact)
- People who share injecting equipment
Out of the estimated 77,600 new infections in Kenya it is not clear how many arose among any of the listed 'risk' groups. High prevalence countries tend not to trace contacts, assuming that the bulk of transmissions (about 90% if you exclude infants said to have been infected by their mothers) were a result of heterosexual intercourse.
You could easily add other risks to the above list, for example (most of the following are a risk in developing countries although 7, 10 and 12 are likely to be more common in rich countries):
- People who have given birth in a health center/clinic
- People who have given birth at home, or anywhere other than in a health center/clinic
- People who have received birth control injections
- People who have had injections, blood tests, transfusions, dental care, infusions, etc
- People who have had operations that involved piercing the skin, major or minor (including circumcision)
- People who have received some forms of traditional healthcare that involved skin piercing
- People who use injected appearance or performance enhancers (eg botox, steroids, etc)
- People who get their head shaved or where skin is pierced and/or weakened by processes
- People who receive manicures, pedicures, etc
- People who have body piercings
- People who practice scarification and other practices
- People who get tattoos
Of course, with the second list, you could warn people about the risks and clean up health centers, cosmetic establishments and anywhere skin piercing occurs (the list is surprisingly long). This would seem preferable to putting almost everyone in a population on expensive drugs for many years.
But UNAIDS, CDC, WHO and other establishments object to calls to warn people about the risks they face in health and cosmetic facilities in developing countries. They warn some people from rich countries about the risks in poor countries but they refuse to warn people in poor countries.
Even concentrating on the risks listed in the Kenya article it is easy to identify many millions of people who could be said to need the $775 per annum PrEP, which is the estimated cost of the drugs alone (I don't know what other costs there may be).
So you can see the attraction for the HIV industry. If there were only 5 million people requiring years of ARVs, for some, a lifetime of ARVs, that's several billion dollars for Kenya alone. There are countries with higher prevalence and others with higher numbers of people infected than Kenya.
With only a few billion dollars for mass male circumcision, with its 1.3% absolute risk reduction, or even the claimed 60% relative risk reduction, drugs for the sick and the well seems like a far more lucrative strategy. Even if the benefits realized for mass male circumcision far exceed those unlikely claims, they can't come close to the claimed benefits of test and treat and those of PrEP.
One problem is that you can't roll out PrEP for many of the groups claimed to benefit. For example, in discordant couples the positive partner should already be receiving ARVs. People who share injecting equipment could be better served by a clean syringe and needle program. There may be other examples, where overlapping PrEP and test and treat might raise eyebrows among the more scrupulous in the industry.
And it would be perverse to give PrEP to people while they still attend clinics and other places where skin piercing procedures take place without warning them about the risks and also ensuring that those places start to abide by strict infection control regulations that people in rich countries (and rich people in poor countries) enjoy.
If PrEP and test and treat strategies work as well as we are told, let's hope they do as well in the field as they did in trials. But let's also get rid of these silly mass male circumcision programs. We no longer have to pretend that they will reduce HIV transmission, or even pretend that that's why they were rolled out in the first place. Worse still, the profits are orders of magnitude lower than the drug based strategies.