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For the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - the CDC - is weighing in on circumcision. Federal health officials say the benefits of the procedure outweigh the risks. And in proposed guidelines, they suggest doctors counsel soon-to-be parents about the benefits of circumcision. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: Federal health officials say the benefits of circumcision really occur later in life when males become sexually active. Dr. Eugene McCray directs the CDC's Division of HIV-AIDS Prevention. He says studies in Africa show men who are circumcised decrease their risk of becoming infected with HIV by as much as 60 percent.
EUGENE MCCRAY: Given the fact that HIV is such a serious disease, we believe that persons at risk should have all prevention tools available to them. And circumcision is one of those tools.
NEIGHMOND: During circumcision, the foreskin of the penis is removed. Health officials say that decreases susceptibility to HIV-contaminated fluid or blood and can also reduce the risk of infection by other viruses including herpes and human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause penile cancer. The proposed guidelines suggest doctors talk with parents of newborns as well as parents of teenage boys who may not be circumcised.
MCCRAY: I want to emphasize that it's a voluntary procedure. And it really requires a conversation between the doctor, the parent and that it's a really personal decision. And it really needs to take into account their own personal cultural beliefs and ethics.
NEIGHMOND: Over the past few decades, rates of circumcision in the U.S. have been on the decline. Today, estimates of circumcised males range from 55 to 77 percent. Groups opposed to circumcision, like Intact America, say the health benefits of circumcision in the U.S. remain unproven. They say the CDC is relying too heavily on studies done in Africa that may not be relevant here. Dr. Douglas Diekema is a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. He helped craft the American Academy of Pediatrics's policy which agrees that benefits outweigh risk.
DOUGLAS DIEKEMA: The risk of complications related to circumcision is very low, with minor bleeding and inflammation being the most common complications. Those are usually quite easily addressed and do not pose a significant risk to the child.
NEIGHMOND: Even so, Diekema says parents need to at least think about potential downsides.
DIEKEMA: It's important that parents recognize that they're effectively removing that decision from their son. And there are some men who will grow up and be unhappy with the decision their parents made.
NEIGHMOND: Diekema also cautions circumcision shouldn't be considered a shield against infection.
DIEKEMA: Circumcision doesn't protect somebody from contracting any sexually transmitted disease. It simply reduces the risk. So it should not ever be seen as sufficient to protect somebody against contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
NEIGHMOND: In other words, protective measures like condoms are critical. The new guidelines will be open for public comment and reviewed by health experts for 45 days before being finalized. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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