Friday, July 20, 2007

Science journalists and circumcision

Professor Andrew Grulich of Australia's National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinic Research (NCHECR) confirmed that at least with the ‘cut’ HIV infection can be down by 50/60 percent among men.

Are science journalists practicing what the science suggests? I started my investigations.

"I am Jewish so it was done at birth," said Kenny Goldberg from the National Public Radio affiliate KPBS-FM in San Diego, USA.

Abdul Basti Ashaba from The Emirates Evening Post in the United Arab Emirates (and seen here in the photo) said he was glad that, as a Muslim, he was circumcised: "it makes me feel safe when having sex even without a condom."

Basti's inaccurate comment appears to confirm a worrying trend mentioned by Dr Andrew Grulich of Australia's National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR) in a session at the journalist to journalist training run by the US National Press Foundation.

Grulich said doctors in one well-run Kenyan circumcision study detected a slight but statistically significant increase in HIV infections among circumcised men at the end of the study, when they seemed to have become overly confident that circumcision would protect them completely from HIV and did away with using condoms, despite the warnings of the study organisers. Despite the slight increase in the number of circumcised men who became infected with HIV, it should be noted that overall, far fewer of the circumcised men became infected, in comparison with the control group of uncircumcised men.

Safe sex is still important, circumcised or not, as another reporter pointed out. "I would not get circumcised if I had not already, just have safe sex," said Naimal Haq, a senior reporter with Bangladesh News 24 Hours website.

Hilary Bainemigisha is from The New Vision newspaper in Uganda, a country whose HIV prevalence was once controlled but is now going up. Bainemigisha said he had the cut after the research was published showing that it was circumcision, and not cultural practices, that was responsible for the lower HIV rate in Muslim African countries.

But was it for purely health reasons?

"Sometime last year I took the cut after reading about these study results but afterwards I failed to recognize it as my own,'' said Hilary. "My partners were singing louder praises for those that had it and I decided to take it,” he said.

“At this time of my age I can not do it because if I have not been infected by now I probably never will,” said 39-year-old Wandera Ojanji, science reporter with the Standard Group from Kenya.

And yet, Wandera's belief is not borne out by the facts. A presentation by Professor John Ziegler of Sydney Children's Hospital, using data from Botswana, showed quite clearly that people in Wandera's age range were dying of AIDS. And in the USA and other affluent countries, older citizens - some in retirement - are contracting AIDS because they somehow think that their age will render them immune.

The 40 percent of my informal study of 15 journalists who were not circumcised were willing to have it done. But they have not done so, for varying reasons.

Khin Zaw Win, a freelance consultant from Myanmar said he is not circumcised but would get circumcised for health reasons. "Two of my younger brothers were circumcised and that is OK."

Edner Boucicaut, with the Centre for Communications on AIDS in Haiti, said, "No I have not been circumcised but I would consider it because it is a good measure to reduce the incidence of HIV. But it is not OK to have the cut in some communities. I can imagine that people look at those who have it and laugh."

"I am not and I would not because most people in China are not circumcised. It is very private and people who do it do not talk about it. HIV is not caused by sex but infected blood," claimed Yu Chun, a journalist from Science and Technology Daily in China. Again, this is scientifically inaccurate: HIV is spread by sexual contact, and the virus is present in the bloodstream (and the lymph nodes, and in fact pretty much everywhere in the body.) Although it is true that infected blood donors and the reuse of equipment in blood donations has been responsible for a surge in HIV cases in China. So maybe it was a case of misunderstanding my question.

Robert Mukondiwa of The Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe tried to insist that physical confirmation was required. His word was not enough. "I did it and I do not regret it. It was for surgical reasons but I do not feel different because in Zimbabwe we do not have cultural or religious attachments. Anybody can do it,” said Mukondiwa.

"No I am not circumcised and I would not do it because it is not in our tradition," said Meelis Suld from Radio Estonia. "The research was not convincing enough. Some more information is needed if I have to do it," said Ansbert Ngurumo from Tanzania.

But at 50% protection, there is nothing better than circumcision right now for men.

OK, condoms work brilliantly. But people don't use them. (For example, Ansbert has two children, so presumably he didn't use condoms at least twice in his life. And look at all those men, circumcised or not, who were told to use condoms and didn't in the Kenyan study.)

With circumcision, a man doesn't have to remember!

- Esther Nakkazi. Additional reporting by Christina Scott


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