11 January 2000

A Snippet of Information

by Kate Melville

If you are not a parent then circumcision is not something you probably ever give much thought too. However in the 21st century where knowledge is power, it's comforting to know that apparently the parents of newborn boys have a pretty fair idea of the possible risks of circumcision. In a report from the University of Washington, researchers studied all hospital records in Washington state for a study period of almost a decade (actually nine years). Their analysis showed that there was a complication in one out of every 476 circumcisions. This is an interesting statistic, but is it much comfort when you consider that religious reasons aside that in a strict medical sense the operation is completely unnecessary?

However according to Dr. Dimitri Christakis ,"Circumcision is a relatively safe procedure". Dr. Christakis a Seattle based pediatrician says that many parents already know what they want for their baby boys. "Parents ask about this all the time. I was dissatisfied with the evidence available that delineates the risks," Christakis says. In reviewing research into circumcision Dr. Christakis's found that while the benefits of had been extensively studied, the risks have been less rigerously investigated.

During the study UW doctors reviewed Washington state hospital records from 1987 to 1996. During that period 354,297 boys were born and 130,475 had circumcisions in hospital. The review also showed that 287 had complications, the most common being intraoperative bleeding (230 cases) and damage to the penis that required treatment (52 cases). All those babies who had complications required longer hospital stays.

The study is a trade-off analysis that does not attempt to tell parents whether they should have their child circumcised or not. That is because different parents view risks and benefits differently. However the analysis seemed to indicate that:

For every case of a boy who has a complication from circumcision, six boys can be expected to have avoided urinary tract infections.

For every two cases of circumcision complications, one case of penile cancer is prevented.

However the study may be erring on the conservative side as it only measured complications during a baby's first hospital stay. For example, some parents may not want to do something that might cause their baby both pain and a complication, even if there is a fractional chance that the circumcision may prevent another problem.

"We're talking about trade-offs for very rare risks and very rare benefits," Christakis says. "Now, I can tell parents that one in 500 circumcised children may suffer a complication, and one in 100 children may derive a benefit. However, the vast majority of children will gain no medical benefit nor suffer any complication as a result of circumcision."

It does seem odd that while in many Western countries (particularly Europe) parents can't even smack their children, yet they can still inflict involuntary circumcision on their infant sons.