Feature story

International experts review male circumcision

07 March 2007

Experts from across the world are gathering this week in Montreux in Switzerland to review the results of recent trials establishing that male circumcision reduces by almost 60% the risk of men to acquire HIV during vaginal sex. These results announced in December 2006 and detailed in recent publications in The Lancet sparked interest and debate in the world of HIV. Is male circumcision as significant an advance as some of its proponents have claimed?

Dr Kim Dickson, from the HIV Department of the World Health Organization is a recognized and respected figure in the field of reproductive health and HIV. She currently coordinates the joint WHO/UNAIDS working group on male circumcision and HIV prevention as well as the Inter-agency Task Team on male circumcision and HIV prevention. She has kindly agreed to tell us more about the meeting and its expected outcomes.


Unaids.org: Dr Dickson, you coordinate the joint WHO/UNAIDS working group on male circumcision and HIV prevention. Can you tell us why WHO and UNAIDS are convening this meeting on male circumcision?

KD: When the US National Institutes of Health decided, in December 2006, to stop the two trials they were funding in Kenya and Uganda on male circumcision and HIV, it became clear that we needed to assess male circumcision as a potential public health intervention in the response to AIDS. The trials, as detailed in the results recently published in The Lancet, confirmed many previous observational studies which suggested that male circumcision significantly reduced the risk of men in acquiring HIV during vaginal sex.

It was important that the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS review the research results and consider what they mean for HIV prevention policy and programming in countries. It was decided to convene a meeting to bring around the table as many stakeholders as possible to look at and discuss many of the issues that male circumcision can raise, and, if possible, give guidance and recommendations for Member States and other stakeholders.


Unaids.org: How many participants are joining in this meeting and what do they represent?

KD: We invited the trials' investigators to present their methodology and their results. We also invited other scientists, from different disciplines such as social science, human rights and communications to ask the investigators questions which were not necessarily in the scope of their trials. We also have 16 representatives from Member States, and 11 from the civil society, including women’s health advocates and a representative from the Global Network of People Living with HIV, to present their own reading of the results and also to raise the issues that they face in their countries and in the context of their activities.

We paid special attention to invite people representing different positions. Last, but not least, we also have eight funding agencies and six implementing partners joining in the discussions. Overall, we are expecting almost 80 participants in Montreux. No need to say that we expect intense discussions that will touch upon many difficult issues.


Unaids.org: What do you expect as the outcomes of this meeting?

KD: The first and immediate outcome resides in the debate that is going to take place this week. This is the first time ever that such a wide range of stakeholders exchange views and discusses the consequences of male circumcision as an additional prevention method in the response to AIDS. At this stage, we cannot pre-empt the outcome. Maybe we will conclude the meeting with more questions than we began with- though I am hoping that at least some questions will be answered and that we will be able to make some recommendations.

The meeting will also identify what we need to do next in order to move forward. In any case, there will be a meeting report which we will make public shortly after the meeting.

Finally, I want to emphasize again and again that our objective is to examine male circumcision as an additional prevention method which should always be part of a comprehensive package which includes, among other elements, the correct and consistent use of male and female condoms, the delay in sexual debut and the reduction of sexual partners. The meeting will discuss how we can strengthen our communications so as not to undermine other prevention methods if we are to scale up male circumcision services.

If the United Nations moves forward with guidance to countries on male circumcision as a public health intervention for HIV prevention, it will be promoted as an ‘additional’ intervention to current HIV prevention packages; not as an alternative. People must understand that male circumcision does not provide complete prevention and they should be encouraged to use more than one of the prevention choices available to them.


Read the three part series on Male Circumcision:

Part 1 - Male Circumcision: context, criteria and culture
Part 2 - Male Circumcision and HIV: the here and now
Part 3 - Moving forwards: UN policy and action on male circumcision

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