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Uncircumcised Men May Have a 63 Percent Higher Risk of HIV

By Hillary Eaton ; Updated March 19, 2018

To circumcise or not to circumcise? According to recent statistics, the number of newborns undergoing the procedure in the U.S. has steadily declined over the past 30 years, with an increasing number of parents opting not to have their baby boys circumcised.

For this reason, it’s more apparent than ever to be aware of this news from the American Society for Microbiology: Certain bacteria found under the foreskin of uncircumcised men could increase their risk of contracting HIV by a staggering 63 percent.

Researchers from George Washington University followed a group of uncircumcised men in Uganda for a period of two years. Bacteria samples were taken from under the foreskins of these men at the beginning of the study and then again after a period of two years.

The researchers then compared the penile bacteria of the 46 uncircumcised men who became infected with HIV with that of the 136 uncircumcised men who didn’t.

Scientific News reports that the findings were quite shocking: The total amount of penile bacteria didn’t differ, but men with higher levels of anaerobic bacteria — meaning they thrive in environments with low oxygen, such as under the foreskin of uncircumcised men — were more likely to have contracted HIV.

In fact, having just 10 times more of this anaerobic bacteria present was directly linked to a 54 to 63 percent increased risk of contracting HIV — and researchers think it’s because of the body’s natural inflammatory response.

“Specific bacteria might cause inflammatory response that would cause the immune cells to congregate in the penis, where they’re more likely to be exposed to the virus,” study co-author, Cindy Liu, told Scientific News. “HIV targets particular immune cells, so recruiting an immune response to the penis might have an unintended consequence — a free ferry ride for the virus into the bloodstream.”

Liu also makes the point that this is something that can be avoided: “While practicing safe sex is still the best HIV-prevention strategy, topical creams that adjust the bacterial balance on the penis might someday help lower the risk of infection.”

It’s not only men and children that are affected: According to the study, this dangerous bacteria can be spread through intercourse, potentially leading to an increased HIV risk in women.

Thomas Hope, a cell biologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, believes the removal of the foreskin means the bacteria don’t have the moist, oxygen-starved environment they need to thrive. He also makes the important point that this study shows an association between, rather than a cause-and-effect relationship with, the bacteria and HIV.

So whether you are circumcised or not, the most important thing to remember is to practice good hygiene and safe sex — always.

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