The Ugandan government says it wants to launch an official drive to circumcise much of Uganda's male population as part of its efforts to reduce the rate of HIV infection in the east African country.  Recent studies conducted in several African countries, including Uganda, suggest that circumcision may offer significant protection from the virus that causes AIDS.   VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has more from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Uganda's Minister of Health, Dr. Stephen Mallinga, tells VOA that the government has begun an intense campaign to raise public awareness about the benefits of male circumcision when it comes to preventing AIDS and to increase acceptance of the practice as a health matter.

"We are not forcing them.  We have just given them information that it helps," Mallinga said. "We find that there is protection of up to 60 percent against HIV/AIDS in circumcised people, but we emphasize it is not full protection."

The campaign follows the release of more than two dozen studies that suggest that circumcised men are two to three times less likely to be infected with HIV than uncircumcised men.  

Dr. Mallinga says one trial, conducted in Uganda, found a 51 percent reduction among men between the ages of 15 and 49 while another trial, conducted in Kenya, showed a 53 percent reduction among men in their late teens and early 20s.

Doctors also note that African countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Swaziland, where male circumcision is not widely practiced, have some of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.  But Cameroon, Guinea, Benin, and other countries where circumcision is common, have experienced low HIV prevalence rates.

Although circumcision is a tradition practiced by some tribes and by Muslim communities in Uganda, Dr. Mallinga estimates that some 80 percent of Ugandan males remain uncircumcised. 

For decades, AIDS took a heavy toll in Uganda until a government-sponsored education campaign about condom use helped cut HIV prevalence rates from 30 percent to about six percent today.

Dr. Mallinga says he would like to further reduce the infection rate through an official drive to circumcise as many boys and men as possible.  He says the government is currently looking for an international partner to help launch the campaign in Uganda.  

"In some areas, people are lining up.  But so far, circumcision really has not caught on," Mallinga said. "We need to launch it and get an organization to fund it.  The more the better, anything to help."

Critics of circumcision have voiced concerns that some newly-circumcised men may mistakenly believe that they are immune to the disease and engage in more risky sexual behavior.   

Dr. Mallinga says the government is being careful not to promote circumcision as a preventive measure against AIDS, but as part of a strategy to fight the spread of the disease.