Saturday, September 1, 2007

An old ally in AIDS fight

DRUG THERAPY, education and prevention are mainstays in the fight against AIDS. But researchers have come up with another idea to stem infection: male circumcision.

In developed countries, the operation is a commonplace option given to parents with infant sons. In Africa, however, the removal of the penis foreskin isn't widespread. Health researchers have noted a important factor: the thin layer of uncut skin is highly vulnerable to the AIDS virus, and removing it could sharply drop infection.

Studies have taken years to establish the point, but now the world's biggest AIDS prevention program run by the United States will begin paying for the operations, mostly in sub-Sahara Africa where 60 percent of the world's 40 million infected people live.

It's a smart investment notable for another reason. In the past, the Bush administration was faulted for pushing abstinence in AIDS programs and obliging poor nations to purchase expensive American-made drugs. Both directives sidetracked the mission and detracted from the image of the United States, by far the biggest funder in the AIDS fight. The circumcision initiative, which makes no judgments on sexual conduct, recognizes science and is free of moralizing that has previously tripped up policymakers.

Circumcision is still far short of being a magic bullet. The operation requires experienced medical personnel and clean conditions. It may also be at odds with local cultural practices. Only 30 percent of males worldwide are believed to be circumcised.

But the efficacy is clear. Robert Bailey, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, said uncircumcised males were 2.5 times more likely to contract the AIDS-causing virus.

The potential in blocking a condition that has infected so many can't be ignored. It's time to expand the fight against AIDS with a familiar practice.