U.S. health officials are poised to endorse circumcision as a means of preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday released its first-ever draft guidelines on circumcision that recommend that doctors counsel parents and uncircumcised males on the health benefits of the procedure.
The guidelines do not outright call for circumcision of all male newborns, since that is a personal decision that may involve religious or cultural preferences, Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, told the Associated Press.
But "the scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks," Mermin said.
Circumcision involves the surgical removal of the foreskin covering the tip of the penis. Germs can collect and multiply under the foreskin, creating issues of hygiene.
Clinical trials, many done in sub-Saharan Africa, have demonstrated that circumcision reduces HIV infection risk by 50 percent to 60 percent, the CDC guidelines note. The procedure also reduces by 30 percent the risk of contracting herpes and human papilloma virus (HPV), two pathogens believed to cause cancer of the penis.
The guidelines do point out that circumcision has only been proven to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in men during vaginal sex. The procedure has not been proven to reduce the risk of infection through oral or anal sex, or to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to female partners.
The scientific evidence is mixed regarding homosexual sex, the guidelines say, with some studies having shown that circumcision provides partial protection while other studies have not.
Circumcision does reduce the risk of urinary tract infections in infants, according to the CDC guidelines.
The most common risks associated with the procedure include bleeding and infection.
Male circumcision rates in the United States declined between 1979 and 2010, dropping from almost 65 percent to slightly more than 58 percent, according to a CDC report issued last year.
The new draft guidelines mirror an updated policy on circumcision released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012.
"The American public should take confidence that these are pretty much converging guidelines. There is no doubt that it [circumcision] does confer health benefits and there is no doubt it can be performed safely, with a less than 1 percent risk of complications," Dr. Susan Blank, chair of the task force that authored the AAP policy statement, said Tuesday. "This is one thing a parent can do to protect the future health of their children."
In its policy statement, the AAP declared that the health benefits are great enough that infant male circumcision should be covered by insurance, which would increase access to the procedure for families who choose it, said Blank, who is also assistant commissioner of STD Control and Prevention at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"The push from the academy's point of view is to really have providers lay out for parents what are the risks, what are the benefits, and give the parents the information they need to make a decision," Blank said. "And the academy feels strongly that since there are proven health benefits, the procedure should be covered by insurance."
The guidelines are expected to spur a response from anti-circumcision groups.
"There are certainly groups that are troubled by circumcision of an individual who is not in a position to provide their own consent," Blank said.
The public can comment on the draft guidelines through Jan. 16, according to the CDC.