The king of the Zulus has issued an edict to bring back circumcision in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, two hundred years after it was abolished.
King Goodwill Zwelithini claims to be reintroducing the practice because it reduces HIV transmission but evidence for its effectiveness is contentious, as I have discussed here, here and here.
The Xhosa, South Africa's second largest tribe after the Zulus, never gave up traditional circumcision. Uncut men are considered inkwenkwe - boys - who are not allowed to mix with the men. Hospital circumcisions do not count.
Health workers tell of the serious problems it causes including 'rotting penises, septicaemia and inadvertent castrations'. Other boys die of dehydration or hypothermia and, far from preventing the spread of HIV, circumcision can increase it as the same knife is used on a large group of boys. In the last year, 80 boys have died, including two suicides.
Researchers into traditional circumcision found that ‘in general, communities considered morbidity and mortality as par for the course. Interviewers were told that "deaths and injury were seen as a way of separating out those boys who were not fit to play the role of men in society." Compounding this 'natural selection' technique, another popular belief is that if an initiate suffers medical complications, he has brought it upon himself through some form of wrong doing, and is therefore being punished'.
On top of the health risks, the rituals place a heavy financial burden on poor families who have to come up with goats, blankets, alcohol and new clothes for the boy.
Given that the Xhosa circumcise for purely cultural reasons and the ritual is what counts, it seems unlikely that the Zulus will accept hospital circumcision.
Even if circumcision did protect the men, there is no evidence that it helps prevent transmission from HIV positive men to women, a concern reiterated by the Secretary General of the Treatment Action Campaign, herself a Xhosa. She commented that 'most new incidences of HIV are among women'.
A trial in Uganda reported in The Lancet found that rates of transmission to women increased with circumcised men. The trial had to be abandoned for ethical reasons.
In America, recent research has found that circumcision does not reduce transmission rates among gay men. Dr. Peter Kilmarx, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that circumcision "is not considered beneficial" in stopping the spread of HIV through gay sex.
Previous research has suggested circumcision doesn't make a difference when anal sex is involved. The latest study, by CDC researchers, looked at nearly 4,900 men who had anal sex with an HIV-infected partner and found the infection rate, about 3.5 percent, was approximately the same whether the men were circumcised or not. Presumably the same applies to men having anal sex with women.
KwaZulu Natal Province has one of the highest HIV infection rates of any South African province. If circumcision does not reduce transmission rates then thousands of young men's lives and well-being will have been put at risk for nothing. Women's lives will also be at risk as these men become their sexual partners. There is still no conclusive evidence that circumcision works any better than good hygiene.
The trial in the Lancet reported above concluded that 'Condom use after male circumcision is essential for HIV prevention'.