Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Media, Culture, and Half-Truths

This is nothing new.  Just warning you now, this is going to be an epically long post.  I've read about this before and I've discussed it before on this blog.  But this topic resurfaces rather frequently.  I see headlines such as:

This is a controversial topic.  There is intense debate among physicians and even residents.  It's a subject that's almost taboo to talk about.  So let's talk about a few things: Media, Culture, and Half-Truths.

I took a course in scientific journalism and media in undergrad, and I walked away from that class appalled.  So much so that I was literally unable to even look at a news article about a scientific or health topic without feeling an intense pang of rage for almost half a year.  Here are some things to know:

The media skews towards catchy headlines.  Sure "Male circumcision benefits outweigh risks, US CDC says" sounds pretty neutral.  But then you have the headlines "Circumcision Guidelines Target Teenagers" and "Feds Say Circumcision Best for Boys," and suddenly those pop out.

The media also has an agenda.  You are supposedly supposed to present both sides of an article (where there are 2 sides to present), but it's almost always skewed and thus almost never balanced.  Take the NY Times article, "Circumcision Guidelines Target Teenagers."  It dedicates a measly 2 paragraphs at the very end on counter-arguments, which although valid, reads as an afterthought.  Take the TIMES article, "Feds Say Circumcision Best for Boys."  There is no mention of any counter-argument.  None.  The LA Times article, "Circumcision cited as defense against HIV in proposed CDC guidelines" is actually the most balanced of the bunch.

The media doesn't understand statistics.  Now, statistics is a difficult concept for even many medical experts to grasp.  So to be fair, the media has no chance.  When presented with numbers, the media will always take the largest numbers presented.  Again, because it's catchy.  For example here, the recurrent phrase that goes "circumcision reduces a man's chances of getting HIV by 50-60%" sounds like a huge deal!  But context is necessary.  That number reported is what's called "relative risk reduction."  What matters to an individual is the "absolute risk reduction."  For instance, let's say the average uncircumcised man's risk of getting HIV is 1 in 1000 (or 0.001%).  So if he's circumcised, his risk goes down by 50-60%, thereby going from 1 in 1000 to 0.5 in 1000 (or 0.0005%).  Well, going from 0.001% to 0.0005% doesn't sound like much of a difference for that individual, and it isn't!  But both numbers could be true.  Going from 0.001% to 0.0005% is a 50% decrease - this is "relative risk reduction," but the "absolute risk reduction" is 0.0005%.  See why the media would choose to report 50% over 0.0005%?  (Note: the average man's risk of getting HIV in the US is WAY smaller than 1 in 1000).

Culture is such a pervasive and unconscious thing that few people even realize it comes into play.  The US, given his history of higher rates of circumcision, has a cultural bias towards that procedure.  Whereas comparable Western countries (Canada, Europe, Australia) don't have this cultural bias.  This is how everyone can look at the exact same studies, the exact same medical literature, and come out with polar opposite conclusions and recommendations.

Here's an excellent article rebutting the latest AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) guideline update on this topic: "Cultural Bias in the AAP's 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision.

People think of medicine and science as containing immutable truths.  Yet in reality the exact opposite is true.  We must constantly challenge and question old scientific truths in order to get ever closer to the Platonic Truths.

Now on to the merits of what's been discussed/argued for in the articles.  The best quote I could find comes from the LA Times article: 
"Dr. Thomas Newman, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC San Francisco, says he believes that the medical benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks but that both are small."
This is the closest thing to the truth out there.  Let's look at the arguments on the table:

  • Circumcision reduces HIV risk by 50-60%.  Well that effect is quite small on an individual level, as illustrated above.  Plus, condoms reduces HIV risk by 90-97% when used correctly.  That "additional" 50-60% is rather meaningless.  Furthermore, circumcision offers zero benefit for those most at risk of getting HIV in the US (men who have sex with men, IV drug users).
  • Circumcision reduces HPV and other STI's.  Maybe true.  But we now have a vaccine for HPV that's 98-100% effective.  And again, condoms.
  • Circumcision reduces UTI's in boys during the first year of life.  This is actually true, however, the risk of getting a UTI is rather small to begin with.  In a healthy uncircumcised baby boy, the risk of getting a UTI is 1 in 100.  In a healthy circumcised baby boy, the risk of getting a UTI is 1 in 1000.  In girls older than 1 year of age, the risk of getting a UTI is like 5-7 in 100.  And how do we treat UTI's?  With antibiotics.  That said, there is a role for circumcision in a baby boy who gets recurrent UTI's (and usually there is some other anatomic problem as well).
  • Risk of complications.  I love how they kind of lumped all complications together, and then say that it's about 1% if the procedure is done before 1 year of age, 9% if done between 1-9 years of age, and 5% if older than that.  I don't know about you, but a 5-9% complications rate is pretty high.  And what are these complications?
  • Infection and inflammation are a common one.  As with any invasive procedure, there is always a risk of infection.  And think for a moment, this baby's penis is healing while he's in diapers, exposed to urine and poop.  That can't be pleasant.
  • Bleeding is another common one.  Well, this could be life-threatening if a baby has a bleeding disorder (like hemophilia).  I'm sure the majority of the time no one does blood tests before the procedure to confirm that a baby does not have a bleeding disorder, and often times a family history can only get you so far.
  • Other risks not mentioned?  Adhesions, meatal stenosis, and accidental amputation are ones that probably should be mentioned.
    • Adhesions: baby's bodies heal very well.  Sometimes parts of where the foreskin is removed will reattach itself to the glans (penis head).  This can cause not only cosmetic issues, but also functional issues.  Sometimes those adhesions are so tight that erections can be uncomfortable.
    • Meatal stenosis: when the opening of the urethra (pee hole) is too small to allow urine to pass.  This problem exclusively happens in circumcised babies and requires surgical correction.  The end of the penis is not meant to interact with the outside world before puberty, and so exposure causes inflammation, which causes swelling, which causes a small hole to get smaller.
    • Accidental amputations: yes, very rare, but very very tragic when it happens.  A handful of cases happen each year and it's impossible to remove this risk entirely.  It may be a 1 in a million risk, but if that 1 in a million is you or your baby, and it wasn't medically necessary, you would probably be pissed off.
  • Also none of the articles mention studies that support the foreskin being a very innervated area of the body.  Whether those nerves play a role in sexual sensitivity and enjoyment is a topic of debate in and of itself, but logically it would make sense that more nerves = more sensation.

So you see, the full discussion is more nuanced.  And when I counsel parents on this topic, I present it as I do above.  Thankfully the area that I'm doing residency in has a low circumcision rate, so this rarely comes up.  But it does once every few months.  Most parents who do opt for the procedure are not undecided - it's like parents who're against vaccines, their minds are made up no matter what you say.  So I counsel towards less intervention, at least insofar as this topic goes.

Thoughts?  I know I'm biased, but again, no one has a truly neutral stance on this topic.  Which makes it difficult to fully "trust" the CDC's recommendations (or anyone's opinion, for that matter) on the subject.

1 comment:

Biki Honko said...

Back when the eldest was born we werent even ASKED! The came and scooped him up, and returned him a while later red faced and unhappy. When I asked what happened, they told me they had circumcised him! To be honest, had they asked we most likely would have done it, we were very naive then.

When the second son was born, they did ask, huge improvement. And then were tasked with trying to decide what to do....yes they are all cut.

Now, years later, we really are upset about what we did to them, very very upset. My hope is as it becomes more common of a discussion hopefully this will become a thing of the past unless its for religious reasons.