This article in The New York Times covers the basic summary of the recent re-analysis that voluntary adult male circumcision in Africa can reduce the transmission of HPV to females. It has one inexcusable problem and an inference a thinking person should draw from it.
First, the problem:
Male circumcision, which has been shown to decrease a man’s risk of contracting the virus that causes AIDS, also appears to help protect his sexual partners against cervical cancer.
The study, led by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, did not last long enough to see how many women actually developed cancer; that can take years or decades.
HPV doesn’t appear in the article. Instead, voluntary adult male circumcision “appears” to help protect against cervical cancer. Yet, the reporter then states that the researchers didn’t actually study whether or not circumcision reduces the risk of cervical cancer because studying cancer can take years or decades. So why does the reporter write that circumcision protects against cervical cancer, rather than writing the actual suggestion that circumcision appears to reduce the risk of HPV transmission? HPV is not one virus, and not all strains cause cancer. This is irresponsible journalism based on the myth that circumcision is “good”.
Cervical cancer was once a major killer in wealthy countries, but because of Pap smears it is now much rarer. In poor countries, it kills almost 250,000 women a year, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Papilloma vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix provide much greater protection than circumcision does, but they are too expensive for most poor countries.
Cervical cancer is now much rarer in the Western nations because we have methods to detect it earlier. It is also less likely to kill in the future because now there are non-surgical vaccines that provide much greater protection than circumcision. So, the findings aren’t nearly as impressive for the readers of The New York Times because there are better detection and prevention methods. And the target audience for circumcision among the readers of The New York Times are parents of infants today. Those children will grow up in the same world where better detection and prevention methods exist, and will likely improve further by the time they’re at risk for sexual transmission of HPV.
Medically and ethically, this finding is irrelevant to the question of whether or not parents should consider forcing circumcision on their children.