A study published in today’s New England Journal of Medicine reports that circumcised men who have had six or more sexual partners are less likely to be infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV) than uncircumcised men with similar numbers of sexual partners. Researchers conducted studies in five countries and found that 19.6 percent of uncircumcised men tested positive for HPV, versus 5.5 percent of circumcised men. The inner lining of the foreskin may make uncircumcised men more prone to HPV, a virus that can be sexually transmitted to sexual partners and can lead to cervical cancer in women. According to the researchers, cervical HPV infection in women correlates with a 77-fold increase in the risk of developing cervical cancer, and women engaging in sexual relationships with uncircumcised men have a higher risk of contracting HPV.
Drs. Hans-Olov Adami of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Dimitrios Trichopoulos of the Harvard School of Public Health, however, note that it is “important to emphasize that circumcision itself does not protect against cervical cancer.” HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States, a country in which 62.8 percent of boys were circumcised in 1997. An estimated 5.5 million women will acquire an HPV infection every year, and an estimated 20 million are already infected, though the numbers may be larger.
Drs. Adami and Tichopoulous also state that they do not advocate male circumcision as a means of preventing the transmission of HPV or as a preventative measure against cervical cancer. The American Academy of Pediatrics also indicated in 1999 that while there may be some health benefits to male circumcision, the data “is not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.”
There are more than 60 strains of the HPV virus, some of which lead to cervical cancer and some of which cause genital warts. Women should receive a pap smear annually to screen for HPV, which can be treated, and use condoms to prevent transmission.