According to new research, male circumcision not only reduces the risk of transmitting the virus that causes AIDS, but it also limits the spread of herpes simplex and human papillomavirus -- two venereal diseases associated with the AIDS virus, as well as cervical and penile cancers.
Herpes simplex type 2, also known as genital herpes, and human papillomavirus, or HPV, are the most common venereal diseases.
HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, particularly in the developing world where screening for the cancer is often not available. Medical experts say genital herpes is a gateway to the AIDS virus because it causes open sores.
In two studies of about 5,500 HIV-negative males in Uganda, researchers found that circumcision reduced the infection rate of genital herpes by 35 percent, compared to men who were not circumcised. The research also demonstrated the procedure reduced the risk of human papillomavirus transmission by 28 percent.
Thomas Quinn of the U.S. National Institutes of Health led the research, which confirms other smaller studies.
Quinn says, because circumcision reduces the risk of HIV transmission, researchers hoped it might do the same for HPV and genital herpes. "You know, when the results were all in, we were pleasantly surprised that there was a significant reduction for both of those viruses," he said.
Researchers found that circumcision did not significantly reduce the risk of syphilis, another common venereal disease.
Previously studies have shown that male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV transmission by 60 percent.
Quinn says circumcision is a powerful weapon against HIV, HPV and genital herpes.
"It underscores the importance of circumcision in decreasing susceptibility to three viruses. And, they are all sexually transmitted viruses, always deleterious effects to the health of the individuals," he said.
The World Health Organization estimates that 630 million people are infected with human papillomavirus. The number of new genital herpes cases is unknown because the virus can be spread from person to person without any apparent symptom.
"There are groups, cultures, countries, peoples' religions who may not be as amenable to circumcision as others. And, they are trying to make (a) decision as to the strength of the recommendation for circumcision," said Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases which helped fund the research.
Fauci says the study should help convince individuals who are leery of circumcision that the procedure provides important health benefits.
"The data that were accumulated into this study now just fortify the scientific rationale for using circumcision as a means of prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including importantly, HIV but now also of importance human papillomavirus and genital herpes," he said.
Fauci expects the findings will lead to funding for circumcision programs, even in the most remote parts of the world, to pay for state-of-the art facilities to perform the operation under safe and sanitary conditions.
The latest findings on the benefits of male circumcision are published this week's edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.