Archaeological evidence suggests that the practice of male circumcision has been a ritualized custom in various cultures around the world for thousands of years. It’s a sacred rite observed in many religions today and, in some nations such as the United States, it’s routinely done as a matter of hygiene.

Male circumcision is the surgical removal of the prepuce (foreskin) of the penis. The practice has been controversial for ages. Advocates of the practice say it prevents disease in the male child and his sex partners in adulthood. Critics say it’s more dangerous than beneficial. Somewhere in the middle are those who consider it an individual choice, not to be done in infancy or childhood when a boy is too young to make such a decision for himself.

The safety of circumcision was put to the test in a recent study that documented medical complications from infancy to adolescence. At every age, the risk of complication was small, according to the study’s findings. It proved to be safest when done during the first year of a boy’s life but the rate of complications rose, although only slightly, as the boys got older.

Charbel El Bcheraoui led the study from the University of Washington in Seattle. He and his research team reviewed medical records of more than 1.4 million male circumcisions performed in medical facilities in the US between 2001 and 2010. They looked for evidence of 41 possible adverse effects (AEs) resulting from the procedures.

The majority of the circumcisions in the study were done on newborns (less than 1-year-old), a group that accounted for 93.3% of all procedures. The older boys were divided into two groups by age: 1 to 9 years old and 10+ years old.

The overall rate of complication was less than 0.5% when all age groups were combined. Complications classified as serious were:

    •    0.76 incidents per 1 million circumcisions involving damage to the urethra
    •    703.23 per 1 million involving incomplete circumcision

Boys 1 to 9 years old were 20 times more likely to suffer an AE of any nature than newborns. Boys 10 and older were 10 times more likely than a newborn to suffer an AE. One reason suggested for the high rate of AEs in group 1 to 9 years old is difficulty caring for the boy at this age during the healing process.

Male babies circumcised in infancy experience a lower rate of urinary tract infections (UTIs) than their uncircumcised peers. As they mature sexually, their rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, is lower as well. Sex partners of circumcised men are less likely to suffer UTIs and STDs, too.

Source: El Bcheraoui, Charbel, Ph.D., et al. “Rates of Adverse Events Associated With Male Circumcision in US Medical Settings, 2001 to 2010.” JAMA Pediatrics. American Medical Association. May 12, 2014. Web. Jun 7, 2014.

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