LONDON, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Educating the
world's religious leaders could encourage millions more men to
undergo circumcision and reduce the rate of new HIV infections,
according to research printed in the Lancet medical journal.
Circumcision can cut a man's risk of getting HIV by up to 60
percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which
recommends it as an effective intervention in countries gripped
by an HIV epidemic.
In Tanzania alone, the education drive could lead to more
than 1.4 million new circumcisions, which could in turn prevent
65,000 to 200,000 new HIV infections, the research showed.
In 2011, the WHO set a target of 20.8 million new
circumcisions across 14 sub-Saharan countries by 2016. By the
end of 2015, just 10 million men had been circumcised, the study
Previous research had suggested that a low uptake may be
influenced by religious tradition and fears that circumcision
could be an attempt to convert Christians to other religions.
Circumcision is widely practiced by Jews and Muslims, and is
carried out by some Christians. The practice predates Islam and
Judaism and was depicted in ancient Egyptian tombs and wall
paintings. Aside from religious reasons, it is often carried out
for health reasons or as a rite of passage in childhood or
When religious leaders are highly respected in their
communities, they can use this influence to convince more men to
get circumcised and therefore help to prevent new HIV
infections, said the study, which was published late on Tuesday.
The researchers studied 16 villages in Tanzania where the
country's health ministry carried out a circumcision campaign.
In villages where religious leaders attended seminars about
the procedure, 23 percent more men were circumcised compared to
villages that only received information from the ministry.
More than 30 percent of men cited discussions in church as
the reason for their decision to undergo the procedure.
"We equipped religious leaders with information and
education, and then they could teach their congregations as they
saw fit," Jennifer Downs, of Cornell University and the lead
author of the report, said in a statement.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of the virus that
causes AIDS, accounting for about 70 percent of the 36.7 million
people living with the virus worldwide, according to the WHO.
Nearly 1.4 million people were newly infected with HIV in
the region in 2015.
The research said educating religious leaders about the role
of circumcision in HIV prevention should be extended to other
sub-Saharan countries. They could also be involved in promoting
other healthy behaviours, it said.
The study took place from June 2014 to December 2015.
(Reporting by Magdalena Mis @magdalenamis1. Editing by Lyndsay
Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)