However, it's not clear whether the finding will change the current recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that the medical benefits are "not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision."
A report in tomorrow's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine pools the results of seven studies in five countries on three continents. It finds a significantly lower rate of infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) in circumcised men, 5.5 percent compared to 19.6 percent in men who were not circumcised.
The study also finds a "moderate" reduction in the incidence of cervical cancer in women who were sexual partners of circumcised men. The reduction was not statistically significant for the group as a whole, but it was significant for women whose partners engaged in sexual practices known to increase the exposure to HPV, such as having had intercourse before the age of 17, having had six or more sexual partners, and having a history of contact with prostitutes.
An accompanying editorial calls the study "convincing," and says "it provides a biologically plausible explanation for the overall excess risk of cervical cancer among female partners of uncircumcised men."
However, it also points out that using condoms can prevent transmission of the virus and other methods being developed, such as vaccination against HPV and early detection of the infection in women, can reduce the toll taken by cervical cancer.
The new data will be taken into account when the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on circumcision next meets, says Dr. John Swanson, a member of the task force that made the recommendation in 1999.
"The academy periodically does review the literature, and bases its recommendations on changes in that literature," Swanson says. The next review "will be done again in the next couple of years."
The latest finding is consistent with previous studies, which generally have found no major medical benefit of circumcision. One such study, done by Teresa To, a scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute in Toronto, found a slight reduction in urinary tract infections for circumcised boys.
"In our study, you had to circumcise 195 babies to prevent one severe urinary tract infection," To says. "While circumcision does lower the risk of urinary tract infection in the first year of life, the benefit was not as big as previously thought."
However, To says, "if parents choose to have circumcision for religious or cultural reasons, they are entitled to have that opinion."
What To Do
When parents ask about circumcision, Swanson says, "we tell them that the studies say there is not a medical reason to say that all boys should be circumcised, but if they desire to have it for non-medical reasons, we believe it may be done."
For more information about whether to have your child circumcised, visit the National Library of Medicine.