Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Two new studies assessing the impact of circumcision against genital herpes

PubMed offers what they call an "alert" facility. It allows you to save a search, and then PubMed will automatically notify you once new entries match that search. It's wonderfully convenient, and ensures that you always have the latest information.

Anyway, today's alert included two new studies that investigated the effect of circumcision against genital herpes.

Jerath and Mahajan performed a fairly small study, but an interesting one. Their study population consisted of forty patients with recurrent genital herpes. Half were circumcised, half were not, and all (except 12 drop outs) were monitored afterwards. What they found was rather interesting. Prior to circumcision, 0.20 recurrences were noted per year, which is similar to the 0.17 that was recorded in the (uncircumcised) control group. But after circumcision, this fell to 0.0080 recurrences per year - a startling decrease to a mere 4% of the pre-circumcision figure. Now this is a small study, and as far as I can tell there was no randomisation process, but nevertheless the results are interesting.

Also of interest is a study by Van Wagoner et al. This was a fairly straightforward study of 460 African American heterosexual men. This study found an association between lack of circumcision and HSV-1 seroprevalence (OR: 1.85; CI: 1.15-2.96), but not HSV-2.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Intact America, part 4

Tony has responded to my most recent post in our ongoing discussion.

Let me address some of his points.
Rather, I believe that he is effectively a pro-circumcision advocate because he views his assessment of circumcision as containing some level of objectivity. It can't, just as my assessment can't. The difference between our views, I think, is that mine involves the child's opinion, placing it above that of his parents.
I may be mistaken, but I think Tony believes that I ignore the child's opinion altogether. That isn't quite so, but I see no reason not to incorporate it into my preferred framework for analysis. Expressed in my preferred framework (in which risks and benefits are expressed as the sum of probability x weight terms), Tony assigns a very large weight (possibly infinite) to the risk that a child may resent having been circumcised. I think it's reasonable to include it, as long as we also model the risk that a child may resent not having been circumcised too, but I don't think that such large weights are really justified.

Next, Tony responds to my comments regarding a hypothetical scenario. I originally wrote: "In this situation, it seems to me that this is a valid appeal to authority, in that the person is willing to adapt their position once the authority changes theirs." Tony replies:
I disagree, again because the focus of the appeal is infant circumcision, not circumcision. It's an abdication of judgment in favor of someone else's conclusion. If Person A is the individual being circumcised, I am indifferent to his acceptance of the authority's conclusion and judgment. That's not what's at stake.
I think that Tony and I may misunderstand each other somewhat. What I'm saying is that the appeal to authority is legitimate as long as the authority is taken as a true authority rather than a convenience. I'm not saying, however, that I necessarily agree with the appeal to authority, or that it is a strong argument. I'm simply saying that it is valid and self-consistent. Tony seems to be saying here that the appeal to authority is wrong because he disagrees with it.
It's possible to make this too broad. I am not suggesting that expert opinion is worthless or should be ignored. I am saying that, when the focus is on infant circumcision, and specifically the circumcision of healthy infants, citing the authority's subjective conclusion of a net benefit (or neutrality) is a diversion from the individual child's lack of need and possible preference for keeping his normal foreskin.
Put another way, it's emphasising one issue (risk:benefit balance) that you (Tony) consider relatively unimportant instead of other issues (necessity and risk of resentment) that you consider more important.

Next, re vaccination:
Yes, there is a difference. Surgery removes a healthy, functioning body part. Vaccination does not. I draw the line between them for that primary reason. So, yes, it makes sense to create multiple standards.
So if we consider surgical procedures that do not remove body parts, do they fall on the same side of the line as vaccinations?
I believe I've understood him correctly. He is wrong. If there is no medical reason (i.e. need)
(I'm not sure that the two terms are actually synonymous. One could have a medical reason without there being an actual need.)
for circumcision, it's unacceptable to permit it on children. Normal genitals are not a "problem," no matter how opposed the boy's parents are to his normal genitals. I repeat my earlier criticism: Jake is begging the question he wants to answer. Medical need is the standard for proxy consent to surgery. Without medical need, the process stops. No intervention is valid.
I understand that this is Tony's point of view, and it is completely consistent (as far as I can tell) with his system of ethics. But he seems to believe that his is the only system of ethics. It isn't: there are many systems. And many people - including myself - see no ethical problem with procedures that are, or are believed to be, in the best interests of the child, even in the absence of medical indication. I find it rather odd that Tony keeps repeating his principles as though they were universal truths.

Next, regarding "Setting the ability to chase potential benefits as the ethical standard opens the range of allegedly valid parental interventions to include any number of surgeries we recognize as offensive" Tony writes:
Immediately following my objection, I wrote that "I am attacking a way of thinking," which is to say that I reject the notion that because we can achieve a potential benefit, it is ethically valid to pursue it. At its core, prophylactic infant circumcision is about chasing potential benefits. I reject that for the multitude of reasons I've presented. Speculating that I did not cite any because none exist is a straw man.
Nevertheless, I think that it is an interesting point. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the actual "number of surgeries that we recognize as offensive" is zero, then what is the objective difference between the two systems of ethics? It seems that, with the exception of circumcision, the two systems produce identical results. And so your argument then becomes "Setting the ability to chase potential benefits as the ethical standard opens the range of allegedly valid parental interventions to include circumcision" - an argument that might persuade an intactivist, but perhaps not anybody else. On the other hand, if there are many such surgeries, then we can see that the standard would lead to unacceptable consequences, and thus clearly needs to be revised.
Citing "surgeries we recognize as offensive" is a pointless diversion. However, I'll play along briefly. I nominate removing the breast buds from infant females to reduce their risk of breast cancer. I have no idea if this would work or it's been studied in any manner. It doesn't matter, because my point was to reject the thinking that believes a potential benefit may be chased. I suspect this would be offensive to most parents, as it almost always is when I raise it in debate. Non-essential, healthy, functioning breasts are different from non-essential, healthy, functioning foreskins, somehow. My guess is that Jake's approach to this would be his utilitarianism, which would assess whether removing breast buds has a potential benefit. (Unless he has some objection I haven't determined.) If it does in his evaluation, it is a valid choice for parents, even if only chosen by those few parents who don't find it offensive. I reject that because the healthy girl may not want the intervention.
Tony is essentially correct when he suggests that my approach would be utilitarian, but that wouldn't involve assessing only potential benefits. It is the net effect that matters, so it would also be necessary to weigh the potential benefits against risks (in which I include certain harms). I'm happy to assume, for the sake of argument, that there would be a potential benefit in terms of reduction of breast cancer risk. However, I think this would need to be weighed against the risks. These would include immediate risks (primarily bleeding and infection), which would probably be greater than those for circumcision due to the more invasive nature of the surgery. In addition, we would also need to consider loss of function - primarily ability to breastfeed, with consequent detrimental effects on any children, but also sexual functions such as a role in attracting partners. And finally, I would think the probability of resentment is fairly high. I think it would be difficult to find a balance that favours benefit.

Lastly, regarding Tony's incorrect statement that "Girls may not have their healthy genitals cut for any reason. Boys may have their healthy genitals cut for any reason", Tony writes:
I think it's obvious that my declarative statement about genital cutting implied "as it's commonly practiced in Western society," which would preclude intentional glansectomy, for example. Moving on.
Why should we consider only genital cutting that's commonly practiced in Western society? And if we're to do so, need we consider FGC, since that is only very rarely practiced in Western society?
What Jake omits here is telling. Circumcision is neutral or a net benefit, according to him. He's ruled out that prophylactic infant circumcision can be a net harm, the glaring mistake in his analysis. [...] A male who suffers a serious complication from circumcision would unquestionably qualify as experiencing a net harm.
Incorrect, because my analysis is fundamentally statistical, considering probabilities (or, if you prefer, large populations). The risk of serious complications is included in the analysis. So, for that matter, is the risk of serious illness that can be avoided. In both cases we can quantify the probability, and the severity, and that is the appropriate way to weigh them against each other.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Acceptability of circumcision

Back in 2007, Westercamp and Bailey published an interesting review of studies of the acceptability of circumcision in sub-Saharan Africa. Among thirteen studies, they found that "the median proportion of uncircumcised men willing to become circumcised was 65% (range 29-87%)".

Interestingly, data from newer studies suggest that these results are not limited to African settings. Begley et al., for example, studied men who have sex with men (MSM) in the US, reporting that 53% were willing to be circumcised. Interestingly, this was especially true among black men. Another paper, by Ruan et al., studied MSM in China. The results were that "16.9% said they were absolutely willing to participate, 26.4% were probably, 28.9% were probably not, and 27.8% were absolutely not". To put that another way, 43.3% were likely to participate in such a scheme - a figure comparable to those mentioned above.

In both studies, concerns were noted, these were primarily about surgical pain and complications of the procedure. In the Chinese study, 5.3% of men were concerned about a loss of sexual pleasure. In contrast, in the US study, some men were willing to consider circumcision in part because it might increase sexual pleasure. This must be quite a shock to the anti-circumcision lobbyists who seem to believe that the foreskin is such an amazing thing that nobody could ever part with it!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Intact America, part 3

In the ongoing inter-blog discussion about Intact America's advertisement, Tony at RollingDoughnut.com has responded to my response. Tony and I have clearly both spent considerable time thinking about these issues, and I suspect that we will never convince each other of the core issues. Nevertheless, I found his response interesting.

Regarding his mischaracterisation of my position, Tony writes:
I do not accept that I've mischaracterized his position as a pro-circumcision advocate. However, I'll clarify to be as specific as possible. He believes the potential benefits of infant male circumcision outweigh the risks and negatives, a subjective conclusion based on his preferences. Given that he uses his conclusion to encourage parents to circumcise their sons, the difference he states is immaterial.

I find this a rather peculiar statement. I suppose in a sense that any attempt to weigh benefits against risks will have some subjective qualities, and perhaps that can't be avoided altogether. However, as subjective values are meaningless to another person I would hope that most observers try as objective as is reasonably possible. I certainly try; I can only hope that I succeed.

I am uninterested in convincing or encouraging parents to circumcise their sons, and have been careful to avoid making a recommendation either way. Anyone sufficiently interested (not to mention patient) can verify this by working through the many thousands of my public comments over the years - I use the same name everywhere, so it is not difficult to find them via Google. Indeed, I believe that such advocacy would be contrary to my pro-parental choice position: I genuinely believe that parents should make that decision, not me.

Skipping over some content, Tony clarifies an earlier point. He writes:
If an authority cited directly (e.g. AAP) or indirectly (e.g. CDC) changes its position in a way that then conflicts with the original appeal, the appeal to authority may weaken the case for the target audience. It's an ineffective strategy.

My first inclination was to agree, but on reflection I think it would depend on the situation. Consider the following hypothetical scenario:

PERSON A: Circumcision is awful because the AAP don't recommend it.
AAP: [Introduces a recommendation in favour of circumcision]
PERSON A: Oh, the AAP are biased, ignore them.

Here the appeal to authority is utterly invalid. It is quite apparent that it is a sham: the AAP are being presented as an authority merely because the person hopes to gain an advantage by doing so. The person clearly has no integrity, nor any credibility, and can and should be ignored. Now consider this:

PERSON A: Circumcision is awful because the AAP don't recommend it.
AAP: [Introduces a recommendation in favour of circumcision]
PERSON A: Okay, the AAP now recommend it, so it's okay.

In this situation, it seems to me that this is a valid appeal to authority, in that the person is willing to adapt their position once the authority changes theirs.

Regarding Tony's requirement that surgery must be "necessary", which I questioned, Tony writes:
His assessment is close, but too neat for this complicated comparison. That is the requirement I set for proxy consent to surgery. The scenario for vaccinations differs.

I see: Tony applies a different standard for surgery and vaccinations. This doesn't make much sense to me, for several reasons. Firstly, from an admittedly pedantic point of view, is there really that much of a difference? Surgery involves risk. Vaccinations involve risk. Surgery involves cutting the skin. Vaccinations (as delivered by a needle) also involve cutting the skin, albeit in a minor way. So I have to ask, where exactly would you draw the line?

Secondly, does it make sense to create multiple standards? To my mind, no. But I may be biased: I'm trained as an engineer, and when I observe lots of different little rules I see a situation in which there ought to be one, more general rule. Special cases are usually an indication that the general rule needs some more attention. Maybe one shouldn't apply engineering principles to ethics. I don't know, but I can't see any reason why one shouldn't...

In response to my comment that "Children grow up to become adults, and yes, that includes having sex", Tony writes:
Of course, to which I reply as a start: condoms. Condoms are among the many possibilities short of circumcision as an infant available to adult males, including circumcision as an adult, to reduce the risk of HIV transmission.

And from slightly further on:
Assuming voluntary adult circumcision is shown to reduce the risk of all forms of HIV transmission through sex, parents can't know that their sons will be irresponsible and "need" this intervention. It's a speculation that does not need to be made for a child. He can choose it later.

To both points, I agree. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to deny that if it were performed during infancy, circumcision would help to reduce this risk when the child became an adult.
Ultimately the comparison to vaccines must rest on diseases like HIV rather than the other potential benefits used to justify circumcision. They roughly share some of the same characteristics. The comparison fails because, as I wrote, the way in which the diseases spread differ. For most vaccines, it is the most effective and least invasive way to stop the spread of the targeted disease. With comparable diseases, circumcision is neither the most effective or the least invasive method available.

There are differences in the way in which the diseases spread, certainly, but I disagree with Tony that the comparison fails as a result. As far as I can tell, the difference has no bearing on the validity of the comparison in the specific context in which it was made.
There is no need, so "most effective/least invasive" doesn't apply? Jake is begging the question he wants to answer rather than addressing objective facts. He's saying that the standard for surgical intervention on a child should be stricter when the child is sick than when he is healthy. Parents can be more speculative and exploratory with surgery for their healthy (male) children? That's ridiculous. Without objective need for an intervention, proxy consent for surgery can't be valid. With objective need, it can be valid because the child needs some form of decision made and he is incompetent to make that decision.

Here I believe Tony has misunderstood, or at least has not considered the issue with sufficient care. If there is a medical problem to address, then the physician's responsibility is to solve that problem while exposing the patient to the least risk. That's the essence of the "most effective/least invasive" standard. But if there is no medical reason for considering circumcision, then it is meaningless to even consider the "most effective" solution. If circumcision is being considered for non-medical reasons then it is in all probability the only solution to the problem (that being that the child is not circumcised). So it is the wrong standard to apply.

At this point Tony declined to list '"surgeries we recognize as offensive" that are valid when benefits and risks are properly weighed', stating:
I am not citing any particular science or surgeries because that was not my point.

This is a shame. I had hoped that Tony would at least try. I cannot think of any, and my suspicion is that this is because none exist. And if none exist, then Tony's earlier objection that "Setting the ability to chase potential benefits as the ethical standard opens the range of allegedly valid parental interventions to include any number of surgeries we recognize as offensive" seems a rather empty objection.

Tony continues:
But to his retort, if a study were to find potential health benefits for genital cutting in a study of adult female volunteers, would that be acceptable to apply to healthy female minors? I've had this discussion with Jake previously, so I know he'd have no problem with it if parents subjectively valued the benefits more than the risks. He is wrong. Society would be (correctly) outraged at the suggestion of violating the child's rights in favor of her parents' "rights". Our anti-FGM laws would not be overturned. Those results would never be applied, regardless of the science.

In an ideal world, I wish I could say that anti-FGC laws would indeed be overturned if scientific knowledge changed significantly. However, I'm sorry to say that Tony is probably right in that they wouldn't be. I don't think that this has anything to do with rights, though: it's a simple case of collective prejudice. The notion that FGC is horrific is deeply ingrained into modern, Western society, and it takes an awful lot to dislodge that notion. I know this from personal experience: I have to make a conscious effort to think about FGC objectively, and have to fight the knee-jerk reaction. And I consider myself very open-minded.

On a related note, Tony writes:
That paragraph is clear. We apply different standards to boys and girls. A female minor's risk of UTI is higher than that of a male minor's, yet we do not vigorously seek proof that genital cutting is the answer, nor, as I said above, would we apply it to infant girl if we could find such results. Now replace UTI with cancer. Ethically, we'd have the same approach to girls. Their genitals would be off-limits.

Evidence actually suggests that female genital cutting actually increases the risk of UTI...
Jake establishes a straw man here. I made a statement of fact about HIV transmission in the United States. His rebuttal is that I should be willing to have sex with an HIV+ woman because I state that voluntary, adult circumcision applied to infant males is not what we need. Presumably he means without a condom. Where have I said that unsafe sex - of any kind, with or without a foreskin - is wise? Jake's scenario is a stupid diversion.

Perhaps I should have made my point more clear (or, arguably, made a better point). Let me explain. My words were in response to Tony's statement that "Our risk is male-to-male transmission and shared needles during IV drug use", which seemed to be saying "there is no risk of female-to-male transmission in the US". That isn't true. The absolute risk may be small, but it exists and shouldn't be ignored.

Tony continues:
It is meaningful to compare female genital cutting to male genital cutting because, ethically, they involve the same issue. Unnecessary surgery on a non-consenting individual is wrong.

If you take that last sentence as axiomatic, then you will probably see the two issues as similar (although, presumably, there's no reason to focus on genital surgery in particular). Those of us who adopt a different ethical principle - something like "harmful surgery on a non-consenting individual is wrong" see no problem with circumcision, and a problem with female genital cutting.
America's anti-FGM law makes no exemption for potential benefits or parental opinion.

This is true, and in that respect it does make itself rather inflexible in the face of possible scientific developments in future.
The former is, as Jake points out, not shown by studies. The latter is all that informs infant male circumcision, since an evaluation of potential benefits is opinion absent any objective indication for the child's healthy genitals.

Here Tony is making a mistake. Evaluation of potential benefits should not be dismissed as mere opinion. The literature contains a relatively large amount of data, which can be summarised in the form of objectively quantifiable data.
There is an obvious double standard. Girls may not have their healthy genitals cut for any reason. Boys may have their healthy genitals cut for any reason. That's the valid comparison.

That's not even correct. Try getting a surgeon to perform a glansectomy on a healthy boy. Or castrate him. Or perform any number of other surgeries on his genitals. He or she will refuse. Most such surgeries are a net harm (except when actually needed, in which case the benefits are considerably greater, thus making them a net benefit), and cannot therefore be ethically performed. Circumcision is unusual precisely because it is a surgery which is neutral or (depending who you ask) a net benefit. And that's why the reason for a specific circumcision doesn't really matter.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Male circumcision and risk of HIV infection in women

The protective effect of circumcision against female-to-male transmission of HIV has received a lot of attention, but also relevant is the effect on male-to-female transmission.

A few months ago, Wawer et al. published results of an RCT showing that the male's circumcision status had no effect on male to female transmission of HIV. Now, Weiss et al. have published a meta-analysis of studies addressing this aspect. Their meta-analysis includes Wawer's study (I assume; I haven't read the full text, but am unaware of any other RCTs) as well as six observational studies. They report:
A random-effects meta-analysis of data from the one randomised controlled trial and six longitudinal analyses showed little evidence that male circumcision directly reduces risk of HIV in women (summary relative risk 0.80, 95% CI 0.53-1.36).
This news will no doubt be disappointing for many, as there were hints that circumcision might protect against multiple transmission routes, but the evidence suggests otherwise. As Weiss et al. note, further RCTs - needed to settle the question - are unlikely to occur.

Still, we must not forget the indirect benefit to women: reducing the risk of a male acquiring HIV in turn reduces the probability that he will pass it on to a partner.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Analysing the analysis of analysis of...

Today, I became aware that Tony at RollingDoughnut.com has published an analysis of my analysis of Intact America's propaganda.

Ok, let me roll up my sleeves and dissect Tony's remarks:
Intact America ran an open letter, as an advertisement, in yesterday's Washington Post urging the American Academy of Pediatrics not to recommend that American parents circumcise their infant sons as a strategy against HIV. [Full disclosure: I attended an event hosted by the organization and interact with some of its representatives because I support its cause.] It's a logical request, based on the necessary combination of science and ethics. A pro-circumcision advocate, Jake Waskett¹,
Tony includes a lengthy footnote at this point, justifying his assumption. I'll omit it, because he's correctly guessed my name. It's a shame that he mischaracterises me as a "pro-circumcision advocate", though (I'm pro-parental choice, not pro-circumcision).
has attempted a deconstruction of the letter, labeling it "propaganda".
"Labelling" seems a curious choice of word, implying that the choice of term is dubious. Propaganda is defined as "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause." Thus, it seems a perfectly appropriate choice of term for an advertisement created by an anti-circumcision organisation for the explicit purpose of promoting their cause to the AAP.
His support for that charge is preposterous, as any approach advocating the circumcision of healthy infant males must inevitably be, but his critique fails because he ignores the central issue involved. After a brief introduction, complete with an absurd assumption about Intact America's motives, Waskett quotes the opening paragraph:
(Quotation omitted. I think we can regard this as "noise"...)
I agree with this, [ie., IA's opening paragraph] although I'm not a fan of appeals to authority. As should be evident with the apparent intention of the CDC to recommend infant circumcision, it only takes one ill-conceived recommendation to distract from the core issue.
This last sentence is utterly incomprehensible.
Despite my misgivings, Intact America structures the argument correctly because it identifies that core: ethics demand not imposing medically unnecessary surgery on normal, healthy children, regardless of gender or potential benefits.
Tony is, of course, free to subscribe to whatever system of ethics he so chooses. However, to my mind he is setting an extraordinary requirement: that an intervention should not merely be medically beneficial, but must actually be necessary. If applied consistently, such a standard would mean, for example, that vaccinations are unacceptable, since they are rarely necessary.
Waskett assesses this with an odd bit of snark about people inventing fire
Not really "odd". IA are essentially arguing that medical organisations shouldn't recommend circumcision because no medical organisations have done so to date. If you apply the same reasoning to the invention of fire, you see how absurd it is.
before issuing a parenthetical aside suggesting that the national medical bodies of African nations now implementing mass circumcision programs implies approval. Perhaps this is the case, which circles back to my reservation about an appeal to authority. But assuming it is not a point of fact. Still, if he's granted the point, what does this prove about Intact America's ethical argument?
IA offer three reasons why (according to them) it is unethical: unnecessary, potentially risky, and not recommended by major medical organisations. As I point out, the last is an extremely weak argument in the context of what the AAP may recommend. I agree with Tony, to some extent, that it is also an appeal to authority.
The risk of female-to-male HIV transmission through vaginal intercourse is a significant problem in Africa. In America HIV transmission risk through sex overwhelmingly involves male-to-male transmission, from which the (voluntary) circumcision of (adult) males has shown no statistically significant reduction.
Tony's words are somewhat misleading here. There haven't been any controlled trials of voluntary circumcision in MSM yet. The American studies to date have mostly compared previously (and probably neonatally) circumcised men with uncircumcised men. Some studies have shown a statistically significant reduction, but others have not.
Even if this wasn't the case, the ethical issue of applying scientific research to healthy children through surgery centers on infant circumcision, not infant circumcision. That's the point Waskett ignores. His defense:
(Quotation omitted.)
(Apparently in relation to my remark that risks need to be weighed against the benefits) No, these risks need to be weighed against the need, or rather, the lack of need. The ethics of proxy consent require parents to choose a balance between the most effective and least invasive solution to remedy their child's malady. But there is no malady when the boy is healthy.
As Tony correctly observes, the situation we're discussing is not one in which there is an immediately pressing need for therapeutic intervention, hence the "most effective and least invasive" criteria for choosing that intervention do not apply. Instead, the situation involves a healthy child, much as with vaccinations. And as with vaccinations, we weigh the risks (adverse reaction) against the future benefits (reduction of risk of disease). Tony is of course free to apply his own ethical standard, but he should not be surprised that others choose not to follow him.
Setting the ability to chase potential benefits as the ethical standard opens the range of allegedly valid parental interventions to include any number of surgeries we recognize as offensive. The science becomes ungrounded by any concern for the individual child as an individual.
Unfortunately, Tony hasn't identified any of these "surgeries we recognize as offensive" that are valid when benefits and risks are properly weighed. I would be interested to learn of any that he - or anyone else - can think of.
Invoking the topic of vaccinations does not change this evaluation. There are similarities between circumcision and vaccination, based on potential benefits. However, the difference rests on how the problems the interventions are meant to prevent occur. For example, becoming infected with measles requires no effort other than participation in society, while acquiring HIV from an HIV+ female through vaginal intercourse requires a very specific action, an action not undertaken by infants. Comparing the two solutions as comparable for parental consent fails.
This is a nonsensical argument: it is absurd to analyse the issue as though children never grow up. Peter Pan is fiction. Children grow up to become adults, and yes, that includes having sex.
Add to this the fact that parents treat the same maladies circumcision is supposed to prevent with less invasive, non-surgical methods when they affect their daughters, and Waskett's argument misses the ethical case against infant circumcision because he's making the case for circumcision devoid of context and ethics. That's a case that works only if it's a voluntary decision by the adult male himself.
This paragraph makes no sense.
Next, Intact America requests that the AAP defend the ethics against infant circumcision rather than considering a revision in favor of the surgery since science necessarily involves ethics when applied to a person's body, particularly via proxy consent. Waskett calls this request "bizarre," despite having failed thus far to address the ethical argument made by Intact America.
If Tony had been paying attention, he would have noticed that I actually identified the three reasons why IA claimed that circumcision was unethical, and addressed each in turn.
[Regarding my statement that the sums saved in disease prevention are probably comparable to those spend on circumcision] Waskett's claim is based on speculation. Perhaps his analysis is correct, but he does not provide proof for his assumption here. We have statistics from other western nations demonstrating the incidence rates for the diseases to which he refers. Since we can analyze circumcision on these terms, "no doubt" is insufficient
Several studies have been published that have compared the costs of circumcision with that of non-circumcision. For example, Schoen et al. The exact findings have varied a little from study to study, but most have shown that, from a cost point of view, the figures are comparable.

(At this point I'll skip a paragraph, since it basically consists of Tony repeating his claims about what is and is not justified. Since this is clearly his opinion, it seems to require little response from me.)
Waskett seems to think that Intact America ignores the randomized controlled trials showing risk reduction in female-to-male HIV transmission from voluntary adult circumcision. The letter noted this fact in an earlier paragraph. Still, as I read the letter, Intact America is not making an argument about epidemiology. Rather, it is making an argument about populations and risk factors.
As a reminder, here is what IA claim: "Doctors have a responsibility to tell parents the truth: circumcision does not prevent disease. Most European nations, with circumcision rates near zero, have lower HIV/AIDS rates than the United States."

As I read that, the second sentence seems to be presented as evidence for the first. If that is so, IA appear to be saying that the most definitive evidence can be found in between-country comparisons.
The risk factors among America's population are similar to those of European nations, not African nations. Our risk is male-to-male transmission and shared needles during IV drug use.
If Tony is confident in his assertions, perhaps he will volunteer to have heterosexual intercourse with an HIV+ woman. Probably not, I suspect, because of course that's a risk anywhere. The main difference, of course, is that the probability of exposure changes dramatically. Put bluntly, if you sleep with a person then your risk of acquiring HIV depends on the probability that they are HIV+.
Circumcision protects against neither.
I wouldn't personally make such an assertion with any confidence.
Is that complete proof that infant circumcision in America, unlike the randomized trials involving adult volunteers in Africa, is irrelevant to the United States? No, and I don't think Intact America is suggesting otherwise. It is simply working from the central fact,
Correction: opinion.
which is that it is unethical to circumcise healthy infant males - who are not sexually active - to prevent a disease for which most of them will face minimal lifetime risk and for which less invasive, more effective prevention methods exist. Europe is an appropriate anecdotal case study that (infant) circumcision is not necessary to achieve the results health officials desire.
I believe that Tony is going beyond a generous interpretation of IA's words here. IA clearly state that "circumcision does not prevent disease". That's not a statement in the context of ethics. It's in the context of science: it poses a testable hypothesis.
The complications of circumcision affect individuals. Those individual have rights. We recognize this for female minors, legislating against parental proxy consent for medically unnecessary genital surgery on daughters for any reason. The ethical argument against infant male circumcision involves the equal rights concept that the same protection should be applied to males. Waskett hasn't yet made a coherent case for denying these rights to male minors.
It is not meaningful to compare female genital cutting to circumcision. Female genital cutting is a net harm, with no known medical benefits, immediate risks, and a considerable chance of permanent harm. Society passes laws to protect the vulnerable from harm, and so it makes sense to protect children from female genital cutting. But - applying the same principle - it doesn't make sense to legislate against circumcision, because there is no net harm. Most reasonable people, weighing the risks and benefits, come to the conclusion that it is neutral or beneficial.

(Tony's final paragraph omitted, as it is essentially repetition of his arguments.)

Some HIV updates...

A recently published study, Templeton et al., reports:

On multivariate analysis controlling for behavioural risk factors, being circumcised was associated with a nonsignificant reduction in risk of HIV seroconversion [hazard ratio 0.78, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.42-1.45, P = 0.424]. Among one-third of study participants who reported a preference for the insertive role in anal intercourse, being circumcised was associated with a significant reduction in HIV incidence after controlling for age and unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) (hazard ratio 0.11, 95% CI 0.03-0.80, P = 0.041).
This study provides valuable new data for evaluating the effect of circumcision among men who have sex with men (MSM). A meta-analysis published in 2008 by Millett et al. reported:
The odds of being HIV-positive were nonsignificantly lower among MSM who were circumcised than uncircumcised (odds ratio, 0.86; 95% confidence interval, 0.65-1.13; number of independent effect sizes [k] = 15).
But, of course, meta-analyses depends entirely on their source data; there is a need to update this earlier meta-analysis to include Templeton's findings. In particular, that earlier meta-analysis included only three studies in meta-analysis of the effect of circumcision among MSM favouring an insertive role in anal intercourse:
A separate analysis (not shown in Table 2) of 4 findings from 3 studies29, 33-34 reporting HIV infection and circumcision status for MSM who engaged exclusively or primarily in insertive anal intercourse (n = 2238) was protective, but not statistically significant (OR, 0.71; 95% CI, 0.23-2.22; k = 4). The power for this analysis was 0.94. Although there was high heterogeneity among these 4 findings (I2 = 90%), too few findings were available for a stratified analysis.
On a related topic, there are some reports from studies piggy-backing on the African RCTs that provide some new and interesting information about the mechanisms by which circumcision is protective against HIV. First, we have Johnson et al., who report:
Epithelial inflammation was present in 4.2% of men with neither HIV nor HSV-2 infection; 7.8% of men with only HSV-2; 19.0% with HIV alone (P = 0.04); and 31.6% in HIV/HSV-2 coinfected men [prevalence rate ratio (PRR) 7.5, 95% confidence interval (CI) 2.3-23.8, P < 0.001]. [...] Foreskin inflammation is increased with HIV and HSV-2 infections, higher HIV viral load and presence of smegma. Foreskin inflammation may have implications for HIV transmission and acquisition in uncircumcised men.
Next, we have Auvert et al., who report:
When controlling for all covariates, HIV incidence increased significantly with HR-HPV positivity (aIRR = 3.76, 95% CI: 1.83 to 7.73, P < 0.001) and with the number of HR-HPV genotypes (adjusted-P linear trend = 0.0074). [...] One [of several explanations] is that HR-HPV facilitates HIV acquisition.

Pearly penile papules

A recently published study by Agha et al. reports that - as suspected by many - pearly penile papules are less frequently found in circumcised men.
The prevalence of PPP was 38.3% in <25 years, and 11.4% in >50 years (P < 0.001). [...] In the younger age group, the prevalence of PPP was 26.5% in circumcised participants, and 42.4% in uncircumcised participants (P < 0.05)

Pearly penile papules (PPP) are small raised bumps that are frequently found around the corona. They're sometimes mistaken for genital warts, and can cause significant embarrassment. Although frequently found in partners of women with cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, there is little evidence of a causative role, and PPP are frequently (it seems) considered harmless.
Agha's findings are consistent with those of Rehbein in 1977, who reported:
there was a significantly increased incidence of pearly penile papules in Negroes and uncircumcised men. [...] The incidence of papules was greatest in young adults and tended to decrease with increasing age.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Foreskin surface area and HIV risk

The African randomised controlled trials were amazingly productive. Not only were the direct results of the trials (namely proving the causative effect of circumcision in reducing HIV risk) important, but they also provided an environment for many interesting piggy-back studies.

This is an interesting new paper. Entitled "Foreskin surface area and HIV acquisition in Rakai, Uganda (size matters)", it is essentially an analysis of the relationship between the surface area of the foreskin and the risk of HIV infection among control-arm participants in two of the HIV RCTs.

Here's the key finding:
Mean foreskin surface area was significantly higher among men who acquired HIV (43.3 cm2, standard error 2.1) compared with men who remained uninfected (36.8 cm, standard error 0.5, P = 0.01).
This is logical, really: given that the foreskin increases the risk of HIV infection, one would expect more foreskin to further increase the risk. It might, in principle, be information that would be useful in targetting circumcision: men with longer foreskins could, for example, be warned that their risk is greater. But the information will prove most useful, I believe, in helping researchers as they continue to investigate the mechanisms by which circumcision is protective.

For those uncomfortable with metric measurements, 43.3 square centimetres is 6.71 square inches, and 36.8 square centimetres is 5.7 square inches. To my knowledge, this is the first study of foreskin surface area in the literature - I have never been able to identify any evidence for the "15 square inches" commonly claimed by the anti-circumcision lobby, which appears to be merely a guess, and apparently a rather over-inflated guess. So now that we have hard data, we can expect to see that figure disappear. I wish I wasn't joking - I've never yet seen the anti-circumcision lobby abandon any of their myths in the face of contrary evidence - but I might be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Analysis of Intact America propaganda

I recently became aware of this. An obviously well-funded group called "Intact America" have placed what appears to be a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post. They must be terrified that the AAP will decide to recommend circumcision - the advert must have cost a fortune! Anyway, I thought it would be instructive and educational to analyse their advertisement, to see what propaganda techniques they're using. So let's dissect An Open Letter to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

American parents trust their pediatricians and rely on them for the best advice in caring for their children. As a matter of ethics, that advice cannot include neonatal male circumcision - a medically unnecessary, potentially risky surgery that no major medical authority in the world recommends.

Let's start with the last point: what Intact America are arguing, in effect, is that the AAP (a major medical authority) should not recommend circumcision because no major medical authorities have done so to date. Now, that's an ... interesting ... argument. It's a good thing that these people weren't around when people invented fire!

(As a point of fact, I'd question whether their assertion is even true. Many African countries are embarking on large-scale circumcision programmes in the fight against HIV, and it seems likely that they're doing so with the assistance and approval of their national medical bodies.)

So what do we have left? A "potentially risky surgery". Well, yes, it is. There are risks, of course, albeit small. But these need to be weighed against the benefits: a reduction in the risk of certain conditions.

Finally, "medically unnecessary". Again, yes, it is. But that's not an argument against it: something can be beneficial, even advisable, without being necessary. Take vaccinations, for example: they're not strictly necessary, but they're certainly advisable.

Their claim that circumcision is unethical seems to be on shaky ground.

That is why Intact America is asking the task force charged with reviewing the American Academy of Pediatrics' current neutral position on infant circumcision NOT to revise that position in favour of the surgery. Further, we ask you to take an ethical stand against the removal of a healthy, functioning body part - the prepuce, or foreskin - from non-consenting newborn babies.

Well, I guess they're entitled to ask, however bizarre the request may be.

The United States is the only western nation today where doctors routinely circumcise infant boys in medical settings. Although the rate has fallen from above 90 percent 30 years ago to below 60 percent today,

This is false. The recorded infant circumcision rate 30 years ago (ie., in 1979) was 64.3%. Figures for today are unavailable, but from the same source, the most recent data (for 1999) indicate a rate of 65.3%.

still, more than one million American babies undergo the surgery every year driving one billion dollars in health-care spending.

And, no doubt, saving comparable figures in disease prevention.

Now, based on studies conducted among adults in sub-Saharan Africa that found reduced transmission of HIV from women to men (though not from men to women, nor men to men), some are suggesting that the AAP - meeting this week in Washington - should recommend circumcision for all newborn boys in the United States.

"Some" is rather vague, but this seems basically correct. News reports over the past year or so have contained similar suggestions.

Doctors have a responsibility to tell parents the truth: circumcision does not prevent disease.

Which? Should doctors tell parents the truth, or should they tell parents that circumcision does not prevent the disease?

Most European nations, with circumcision rates near zero, have lower HIV/AIDS rates than the United States.

Are Intact America really so naive about epidemiology that they think that between-country comparisons constitute a decisive answer to such a question? Evidence-based medicine requires use of the best available evidence (usually randomised controlled trials), not the least (ecological analyses such as this are considered one of the weakest methodologies, and for good reason).

Circumcision rates in America do not correlate with HIV rates in any ethnic population or geographical region.

Yes, they do. The CDC cited several American studies in which such correlations were observed in their factsheet (see the section entitled "HIV Infection and Male Circumcision in the United States"). Are Intact America unaware of this, or are they intentionally making false claims?

Furthermore, circumcision has significant risks, including infection, bleeding, impairment of sexual function, and even death. Earlier this year, an Atlanta family was awarded $2.3 million because a physician accidentally amputated much of their infant son's penis during a "routine" hospital circumcision. A Canadian baby bled to death in 2004, after being circumcised in a British Columbia hospital. In 2008, a baby from South Dakota bled to death, and his parents have filed suit against the hospital where he was circumcised, as well as the doctor who performed the surgery.

Yes, accidents happen, and of course they're tragic. But let's be sensible. If we're going to consider the risks associated with circumcision, we also have to consider the risks associated with non-circumcision. Babies die of urinary tract infections - and circumcision reduces the risk. Adults die of penile cancer (again, the risk is reduced) and of HIV (and again).

Infrequent though complications may be, because the surgery is performed on healthy babies who have no need for it, each injury and death is utterly indefensible.

This is illogical. If you choose to avoid the risks associated with circumcision, you choose the risks associated with non-circumcision. It's impossible to avoid risk altogether.

Growing numbers of medical professionals and expectant parents are saying "No" to infant circumcision.

There's no convincing evidence that this is the case.

We urge members of the AAP's circumcision task force, and all pediatricians, to make the same decision on behalf of the babies who are their patients.

They're entitled to urge, but how convincing do they imagine they are? It's easy to put together a bunch of illogical arguments and false claims, but a persuasive argument requires factual accuracy and logical reasoning.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Exponential growth in interest in circumcision

A little bit of fun.

The following graph shows the level of interest in circumcision (as measured by the number of PubMed abstracts published in a given year) vs time. The line shown is the best fit for the data (found using least squares regression, the curve shown is exponential, with the formula being exp(-109.44761+0.05724*y), where y is the year).

What this means is that interest in circumcision is not only increasing, but the rate of increase is itself increasing. The interesting questions are: why? And will it continue?

For those who are interested, the graph is reasonably easy, though a bit tedious, to reproduce. Go to PubMed, and search for "circumcision 1970[dp]", without including the double quote marks. Note the number of items found. Then repeat for all years from 1971 to the present. I typed the figures straight into a CSV file, which I then loaded into R for analysis and plotting.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A little late, but...

Okay, I allowed a little more time to elapse between posts than I intended... Nearly three years, to be more precise, and - of course - a lot has happened in that time.

I'm calling today my 6 and a half year circumcision debate anniversary. I'm not sure if that's exactly right, and it could be a month or two either way, but I haven't kept records, and I think it's close enough. In mid 2003, I entered the public circumcision debate, and I've been involved on a daily basis ever since. I don't know how much impact I've had by myself (how can anyone identify the impact of a single person), but I figure it's more than zero. I hope so, anyway.

Anyway, at the moment I'm involved in three ongoing debates, and as a result of the events in these debates, I've been thinking about behaviour: how participants in a debate behave, and how that influences the debate. I'd like to try to codify some of the (informal) rules that I follow.

First, remember your audience. It's probably impossible to convince your opponent of anything, but other, perhaps more reasonable people are reading and they will be convinced by reasoned argument. If you're lucky, you'll hear from them privately, from time to time. So don't give up.

Second, be polite. This is the single most important rule, as few people pay attention to someone who is rude or abrasive, even if the rudeness isn't directed at them personally. An important part of this is avoid personal attacks, which includes subtle ones such as speculating about people's motives or thought processes. Remember: if someone seems like a crank to you, they probably seem like a crank to your audience, too.

Third, stick to the subject. If you're wrong, don't be tempted to change the subject. And if your opponent does, try pointing that out and stick to the subject yourself rather than joining him/her on the off-topic debate.

Fourth, if you mess up, admit it and apologise. Everyone's human, and everyone makes mistakes. It's much less annoying if you admit it.

Fifth, always provide evidence (or at least avoid making a point unless you know you can back it up with evidence).

Sixth, don't cherry-pick evidence. Present it all, both the bits that support your argument and the parts that do not. The key is to show that the weight of evidence supports your position, even if there are exceptions. And there probably are exceptions, because...

Seventh, remember that most evidence is imperfect. And some forms of evidence are better than others (see evidence-based medicine). The consequence of this is that you should expect a certain proportion of studies to be wrong, especially those of lower quality. In general, expect most studies to point in the right direction, but don't be surprised by a few that do not.

Eighth, not every battle is worth fighting. Don't spread yourself too thinly. Know when to walk away.