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We do them in Black for 14.99

I was recently sent an article which stated that “Novel strategies are needed to increase the uptake of voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) in sub-Saharan Africa and enhance the effectiveness of male circumcision as an HIV prevention strategy.”

The operation is provided free of charge. But this ‘intervention’ randomized participants into three groups, the first receiving about $2.50 in food vouchers, the second receiving about $8.75 and the third about $15, conditional on getting circumcised within two months. There was also a control group of men who received no compensation.

You may wonder why an operation said to be so highly beneficial requires a financial incentive; your wonder may (or may not) be assuaged by the assurance that some men face certain “economic barriers to VMMC and behavioral factors such as present-biased decision making”.

‘Present-biased’ suggesting that people will not spend money now on something that promises a future benefit only. However, perhaps these men don’t see any benefit; perhaps they use condoms, have only one, HIV negative, sexual partner, don’t have sex at all, live in a place where HIV prevalence is extremely low (there are many in Africa, far more than places where prevalence is high), etc. It’s also unclear what proportion of HIV is transmitted through heterosexual sex, which is the only mode of transmission circumcision enthusiasts even claim to reduce.

So those providing the operation propose ‘compensating’ each man for some of the costs involved in having the operation, possibly including the opportunity costs of missing work for a few days. You could argue that there will be no net financial benefit, and that this is nothing like bribing people to conform to a practice that some western donors from rich countries see as beneficial, but that the majority of people, even in rich countries, consider useless, perhaps even harmful.

The claimed future ‘benefit’ comes to this: one person out of every one hundred or more men who are circumcised (we don’t know the number because mass male circumcision trials have been biased towards showing the effectiveness of the operation) may be ‘protected’ from infection with HIV; ‘protected’ if it really is the circumcision that protects the man; no causal protective mechanism has ever been convincingly demonstrated.

The upshot of the trial will not surprise anyone. Hardly any of those in the control group went on to avail of their free circumcision. Slightly more of the men receiving $2.50 did so. The same goes for those receiving $8.50 and those receiving $15. But the overall impact was “a modest increase in the prevalence of circumcision after 2 months”.

The several hundred thousand Kenyans claimed to have already agreed to be circumcised under these mass male circumcision programs (many of whom would have been circumcised anyway in accordance with tribal practice), and the millions claimed to have been circumcised under similar programs in other African countries, may be disappointed that they will not receive anything at all to reflect “a portion of transportation costs and lost wages associated with getting circumcised”.

Depending on whose figures you use, circumcisions in African countries are claimed to cost as little as $60. Other figures suggest that the cost is at least twice that, and NGOs profiting from these programs would have an interest in claiming costs as high as possible. All the figures are puny compared to what the operation would cost in a rich country. But with an estimated 22 million men said to be currently eligible in Africa, and several tens of millions more boys not counted in the original estimate, just how much money is available?

Much of the literature about mass male circumcision is about notional economic benefits and quite superficial issues, such as assumed cleanliness and hygiene (for which there is no evidence), aesthetic aspects, improved sexual experience, and the like. Very little is about ethics, politics or, god forbid, human rights.

The ‘benefits’ of circumcision are easy enough to exaggerate and any disbenefits can be discounted because the ‘beneficiaries’ are male Africans, whose ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior is said to be responsible for the bulk of HIV transmissions.

To those promoting mass male circumcision, the useless piece of flesh on the end of a penis is a man, an African man, at that. Whereas the foreskin represents a vast funding opportunity and permits unbridled expression of a pathological belief in the multiple virtues of genital mutilation. The right to bodily integrity has, apparently, been suspended.

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