Circumcision and HPV Risk
Large studies confirm that circumcision helps prevent HPV and cancer in men and women. But the decision to circumcise is still a personal one.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Research shows that circumcision can have several medical benefits, including reducing the risk of contracting the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Most importantly, circumcision has been shown to reduce the risk associated with high-risk subtypes of HPV, those associated with cervical, penile, and other cancers, says Anna R. Giuliano, PhD, program leader of the risk assessment, detection, and intervention program at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Fla.
Three large studies were conducted in Africa and published within the last few years.
“One was in Uganda, one in Kenya, and one in South Africa, and all three showed the same benefits: a 50 to 60 percent reduction in HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and a significant reduction in HPV infections,” Giuliano says. “It really does look like circumcision is protective, not only against HIV infection, but also against HPV.”
The health benefits of circumcision also extend to women who have sex with circumcised men. Studies show that female partners are less likely to get HPV, cancer, and bacterial infections as well, Giuliano says.
Parents weighing whether to circumcise their sons also should know that the risks of circumcision are minimal, Giuliano says. Possible complications include minor bleeding at the site and local infection, which can be treated. The complication rate in the United States ranges from 0.2 to 2 percent.
Arguments in Favor of Circumcision
Circumcision has been shown to have other health benefits as well:
- The risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) is lower. A circumcised newborn male has about a 1 in 1,000 chance of developing a UTI in his first year, while an uncircumcised male infant has about a 1 in 100 chance.
- It helps prevent foreskin infections.
- It helps prevent phimosis, a condition that can occur in uncircumcised males which makes foreskin retraction impossible.
- It is easier for men to practice proper genital hygiene.
In some cultures, such as among Jews and Muslims, circumcision is a religious tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years.
Arguments Against Circumcision
Still, the practice is controversial, as some people view it as genital mutilation.
Some also argue that:
- It reduces sexual pleasure in males.
- Males can learn proper hygiene that can lower their chances of getting infections and cancer of the penis, which is rare to begin with — about 800 men get HPV-related penile cancer each year in the United States.
- Most men who get HPV, no matter the type, never develop any HPV symptoms or health problems. (Still, all men should be made aware of and look out for HPV symptoms.)
- A safe and effective HPV vaccine (Gardasil) can protect males against HPV. The HPV vaccine, given in three shots over six months, is available for boys and men ages 9 through 26 years.
Circumcision: A Personal Decision
Circumcision really does have to be a personal decision for parents and for men who were not circumcised as infants, Giuliano says. However, the medical evidence strongly supports the practice, which has been performed for centuries.
“I think there’s a good reason why it has stuck around,” Giuliano says. “We have always suspected that the practice of circumcision has health benefits, but only since the 1980s have we had the tools to measure it.
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