A ‘snip’ in time: what is the best age to
Brian J Morris1*, Jake H Waskett2, Joya Banerjee3, Richard G Wamai4, Aaron AR Tobian5, Ronald H Gray5,
Stefan A Bailis6, Robert C Bailey7, Jeffrey D Klausner8, Robin J Willcourt9, Daniel T Halperin10, Thomas E Wiswell11
and Adrian Mindel12
Background: Circumcision is a common procedure, but regional and societal attitudes differ on whether there is a
need for a male to be circumcised and, if so, at what age. This is an important issue for many parents, but also
pediatricians, other doctors, policy makers, public health authorities, medical bodies, and males themselves.
Discussion: We show here that infancy is an optimal time for clinical circumcision because an infant’s low mobility
facilitates the use of local anesthesia, sutures are not required, healing is quick, cosmetic outcome is usually
excellent, costs are minimal, and complications are uncommon. The benefits of infant circumcision include
prevention of urinary tract infections (a cause of renal scarring), reduction in risk of inflammatory foreskin
conditions such as balanoposthitis, foreskin injuries, phimosis and paraphimosis. When the boy later becomes
sexually active he has substantial protection against risk of HIV and other viral sexually transmitted infections such
as genital herpes and oncogenic human papillomavirus, as well as penile cancer. The risk of cervical cancer in his
female partner(s) is also reduced. Circumcision in adolescence or adulthood may evoke a fear of pain, penile
damage or reduced sexual pleasure, even though unfounded. Time off work or school will be needed, cost is
much greater, as are risks of complications, healing is slower, and stitches or tissue glue must be used.
Summary: Infant circumcision is safe, simple, convenient and cost-effective. The available evidence strongly
supports infancy as the optimal time for circumcision.
Keywords: Circumcision, Public health, Surgery, Infant health, Adolescent health, Foreskin, Urinary tract infections,
Sexually transmitted infections, Penile cancer, Cervical cancer, Dermatology, Psychology
The English proverb “A stitch in time saves nine” tea-
ches that to avoid a bigger problem later immediate
effort is preferable to procrastination. Thus fixing a
small hole in a sock with one stitch will avoid the need
for nine stitches later when the hole becomes bigger. In
the present article we consider whether this applies to
medical male circumcision (MC) - referred to colloqui-
ally as a “snip”.
Worldwide 1 in 3 males are circumcised [1,2], totaling
an estimated 1.2 billion . In the USA, medical MC is
performed on 1.2 million newborns (56% of baby boys)
in community hospitals annually [3,4]. The true number
is higher because some boys are circumcised in ambula-
tory facilities, a physician’s clinic or in a private home.
In other developed countries infancy is also the most
common time for performing MC, whereas in non-Mus-
lim developing countries MC is usually part of coming-
of-age ceremonies where risks are usually greater .
The largest number of circumcised males are Muslims
(approx. 70% of circumcised males globally) .
Circumcision predates human history, with evidence
of MC from art forms of the Upper Paleolithic period in
Europe (38,000 to 11,000 years BCE) . Rather than
arising independently in diverse cultures globally , the
practice more logically arose prior to the migration of
Homo sapiens out of Africa . If it had no survival
advantage, it is unlikely that it would have persisted,
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
1School of Medical Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006,
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
© 2012 Morris et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in
any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
and, as hypothesized by Cox & Morris, subsequent ces-
sation of MC in some populations was perhaps a result
of behavioral changes caused by environmental stressors
or new religious philosophies such as Hinduism and
Buddhism . Such factors could explain why circumci-
sion is relatively low in European, South and Central
America, southern Africa, and non-Muslim Asian
The awareness during Victorian times of a wide array
of medical benefits from MC, including prevention of
syphilis and better hygiene, led to a rise in its popularity
in Anglo-Saxon populations in the 19thcentury [7,9],
continuing today in the USA in particular, where the
majority of infant boys are circumcised [3,4]. In the UK
circumcision is more common in the wealthier upper-
classes, marking the fact that a doctor attended the
birth rather than a mid-wife.
The advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s re-
focused interest on MC as a means of prevention of not
just HIV, but other sexually transmitted infections
(STIs) and adverse medical conditions. This has led to
MC programs in high-HIV prevalence settings of sub-
Saharan Africa focused on men for more immediate
reductions in HIV incidence, but considerable interest
has also been given to encouraging infant MC for
longer-term gains [10,11]. There have as well been
recent calls for the promotion of infant MC in the USA
[12,13], the UK , Australia  and sub-Saharan
Despite the advantages of MC, few studies have
directly compared the relative merits of MC at different
ages. Here we present our findings after reviewing the
literature, and document the relative pros and cons of
infant MC versus MC in later childhood, adolescence or
adulthood ("later circumcision”). We compare medical
and surgical issues for infant versus later MC, attitudes
and barriers, ethical issues, as well as cost-effectiveness.
Our analysis has relevance to all countries, both devel-
oped and developing. Nevertheless, it should be recog-
nized that a decision about circumcision is subject to
varying considerations depending on the particular
social and cultural context involved.
Is infancy the best time medically?
Although an abundance of evidence exists about the
benefits of MC [9,12,13,18], it is reasonable to ask
whether these dictate infant MC rather than MC later
in life when a boy can make up his own mind [19,20].
Some of the advantages of MC in infancy were featured
in a report arising from an expert consultation con-
ducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Pre-
vention (CDC) in 2007 . Here we discuss several
compelling reasons for infancy being the optimum time
An immediate medical benefit is the greatly reduced
risk of a urinary tract infection (UTI), which is higher in
infancy than any other year of life, and 10 times greater if
the infant male is uncircumcised [21-26]. UTIs are com-
mon in uncircumcised infant boys [22-26] and cause
severe pain. UTI as a cause of a fever at this age is often
undiagnosed [27,28]. Bacteriuria in febrile boys present-
ing at hospital emergency departments occurs in 36% of
uncircumcised boys, pointing to a UTI as the likely cause
of fever, compared with only 1.6% of boys who are cir-
cumcised . Antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bac-
teria under the foreskin is a growing problem . The
younger the infant, the more likely and severe the UTI
will be, and the greater the risk of sepsis and death .
In the still-growing pediatric kidney [26,32] a UTI can
result in permanent kidney damage in 34-86% of cases
[33,34], thus exposing the boy to serious, life-threatening
conditions later in life , including end-stage renal dis-
ease in 10% of cases . In men, risk of UTI is over 5-
fold higher if they are uncircumcised . Thus infant
MC offers protection against UTI over the lifetime.
Infant MC also offers immediate protection against
inflammatory penile skin conditions such as balanitis,
posthitis and balanoposthitis that are usually caused by
Candida spp. . Balanitis affected 5.9% of uncircum-
cised boys in one study  and 14% in another . In
male dermatology patients, balanitis was present in 13%
of those who were uncircumcised compared to 2.3% of
the circumcised . After reviewing relevant studies
[38-46] we conducted a meta-analysis to determine the
level of protection against balanitis. This yielded an OR
of 0.32 (95% CI 0.20-0.52) (Figure 1). Balanoposthitis
was a cause of 26% of cases of acquired phimosis ,
in which the foreskin orifice is so narrow that the fore-
skin cannot be retracted. Lichen sclerosis, a chronic
inflammatory dermatosis that results in white plaques
and epidermal atrophy, is a disease of the uncircumcised
male. It occurs in 35%  to 55%  of uncircum-
cised men with type 2 diabetes and peaks in the 30s
. Although most effectively cured by MC , it
would be preferable to prevent it by MC in infancy.
Delaying circumcision therefore results in greater expo-
sure of the male to risk of penile inflammation.
All boys are born with phimosis. This resolves by
about age 3 in all but approximately 10% of males, who
as a result experience problems with micturition, bal-
looning of the foreskin, and painful difficulties with
erections (see review ). Paraphimosis can similarly be
prevented by infant MC.
Circumcision in infancy also means that by the time
the male becomes sexually active, he has partial
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 2 of 15
protection against those STIs known to be more preva-
lent in uncircumcised men [9,12,18,51,52]. Meta-ana-
lyses of observational studies show MC protects against
oncogenic human papillomavirus (HPV) [53,54], genital
herpes (HSV-2) , syphilis  and HIV . The
protective effect demonstrated by meta-analyses of the
observational data [51,55] has, with the curious excep-
tion of syphilis, been reinforced by randomized con-
demonstrated increased efficacy to prevent HIV infec-
tion the longer the follow-up period after surgery. The
protective effect is greater when MC is performed prior
to sexual debut . In men who have sex with men
(MSM), while MC offers little protection against STIs
acquired from receptive anal intercourse, MC does
appear to protect men who are insertive-only, and to a
similar degree as for vaginal heterosexual intercourse
If the male is circumcised, his reduced vulnerability to
carriage of several STIs means his female partner is less
likely to become infected. The female partners of cir-
cumcised men are at reduced risk of HPV infection, the
main cause of cervical cancer [53,65-67], as well as Tri-
chomonas vaginalis  and bacterial vaginosis [68,69].
While RCT data were not as clear, observational studies
have indicated that MC reduces female HSV-2 ,
Chlamydia trachomatis , and HIV [72-74].
MC timing has the same implications for all STIs pre-
vented by MC. If a male becomes sexually active before
he is circumcised, he is exposed to a period of increased
risk of infection from several STIs. The length of this
period varies according to the age at which circumcision
is eventually performed. In countries with a high preva-
lence of STIs, the risk of infection before a male under-
goes adult MC may be considerable. HPV and HSV-2
are an epidemic in virtually all countries worldwide
Random effects model
Figure 1 Forest plot showing association between circumcision and penile inflammation in 8 studies [38-45]. The meta-analysis shown
does not include an anomalous outlier study , which when included led to significant between-study heterogeneity (P = 0.03), but when
excluded no significant heterogeneity remained (P = 0.40).
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 3 of 15
[75,76]. Importantly, if a male has been circumcised in
infancy or childhood, preceding sexual debut, the issue
of infection with an STI during the post-MC healing
period does not arise.
The risk of penile cancer is very much higher if a man
is uncircumcised [54,77]. Many of the conditions above
predispose to penile cancer. For example, meta-analyses
found phimosis increases risk of penile cancer 12-fold (8
studies), balanitis 3.8-fold (4 studies) and smegma 3.0-
fold (4 studies) . These conditions are more com-
mon in or restricted to uncircumcised men. At least half
of all penile cancers contain high-risk HPV types [78,79]
and these can be an important predisposing factor .
A meta-analysis [53,54] and data from RCTs [60,80-85]
have shown that MC protects against HPV infection. A
very conservative meta-analysis noted that there were
two-thirds fewer penile cancer cases in men circumcised
in childhood . It found the protective effect of MC
may be greater for invasive than in situ penile cancer
. Because of lead-time bias and earlier diagnosis in a
circumcised man, it was stated that the analysis was
likely to have under-estimated the true protective effect
of circumcision . An association found between
adult MC and penile cancer could be due to the fact
that MC when performed in adulthood is frequently to
remove cancerous lesions or to treat conditions such as
phimosis and recurring balanoposthitis that themselves
are associated with predisposition to penile cancer.
Therefore the association does not necessarily imply
that delaying MC to adulthood increases the risk of
There is also some evidence that MC protects against
prostate cancer, a malignancy associated with a history
of STIs (see reviews [9,54,86]).
Arguments that benefits and risks of MC are evenly
matched are not supported by an analysis of the fre-
quency of each, as shown in Table 1, which also indi-
cates grade of quality of the evidence . Even though
MC in adults still provides many benefits, and is cur-
rently a crucial intervention in the high-HIV-prevalence
epidemics of sub-Saharan Africa, where many men are
at considerable risk of acquiring HIV, when considering
all of the conditions MC protects against, the benefits of
performing this procedure in infancy predominate over
later circumcision (Table 2). When aggregating the fre-
quency of each condition that is higher in uncircum-
cised males, it has been calculated that as many as half
of uncircumcised males will, over their lifetime, require
medical attention for at least one of these conditions
(Table 1). Thus immediate, as well as assured lifetime
protection against a range of adverse medical conditions
and infections supports infancy as the optimum time to
While the medical evidence supports infancy as being
the optimum time to circumcise, it is recognized that
instituting infant circumcision might present a challenge
to individuals in cultures in which circumcision is an
important part of coming-of-age ceremonies or that are
traditionally opposed to circumcision, particularly in
countries in which circumcision is a mark of religious
affiliation (e.g., Hindu versus Muslim).
Is infancy the best time surgically?
Evidence clearly shows that circumcision in infancy car-
ries fewer risks of complications than circumcisions per-
formed in childhood or later in life. In infancy, surgical
complications for large published series range from 0.2%
to 0.6% [23,88-90]. Higher rates of 2-10% have been
reported in much older and smaller studies [91-93]. A
recent systematic review found a median complication
frequency of 1.5% among studies of neonatal or infant
circumcision, compared to 6% among studies of children
aged one year or older . Almost all of such compli-
cations are minor and can be easily - and completely -
treated. In both infants and older children, severe com-
plications (as compared to mild complications) were
rare, with a median frequency close to zero .
While excluded from systematic review, the frequency
of complications among adult MC patients was noted to
be higher than the frequency of complications from MC
in children older than 1 year . In the large RCTs of
adult MC, complications were seen in 1.7-3.8%; these
were virtually all mild or moderate and were effectively
treated [56-58] (Table 3).
Another issue is a fear of complications - whether real
or imagined - when circumcision is performed later.
Such fears can be a significant barrier to uptake of adult
MC. In a US study, 59% of men expressed worries
about risks of bleeding and infections . A study in
China found that 12.5% of men were concerned about
infection . Education about the actual low frequency
of complications is thus necessary to allay such fears.
Other desirable features of infant MC are the surgical
ease of performing a circumcision on an immobile new-
born, the speed of the operation, absence of any need to
use sutures, quick healing, and good cosmetic outcome
[97,98]. Further information is provided in an extensive
recent review of instrumentation and techniques for
infant and later circumcision .
When the frequency and severity of complications
from the procedure itself are compared with the fre-
quency and severity of medical conditions, including
deaths, that can result from not circumcising, the evi-
dence strongly favors the argument for MC in infancy
 (Table 1). Nevertheless, circumcision later is far bet-
ter than no circumcision at all.
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 4 of 15
Table 1 A comprehensive risk-benefit analysis of infant MC
Risks from not circumcising
Fold increase NNT†
Urinary tract infection (infants)
Urinary tract infections (lifetime)
- with concurrent bacteraemia
- childhood hypertension
- end-stage renal disease (lifetime)
Genital herpes (HSV-2)
In female partner:
Thus risk in an uncircumcised male of developing a condition requiring medical attention over their lifetime = 1 in 2
Risk associated with medical MC in infancy
Local bruising at site of injection of local anesthetic (if dorsal penile nerve block used)
Need for repeat surgery (if skin bridges or too little prepuce removed)
Loss of penis
Loss of penile sensitivity
Thus risk of an easily-treatable condition = 1 in 500 and of a true complication = 1 in 5000
close to 0
close to 0
Over 1 million
*As per Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) grading system for evidence-based guidelines , which ranges from 1++ (highest) to 4 (lowest).
Values shown are based on statistics for USA (for source data see review  and references cited in the present article)
†NNT number needed to treat - i.e., approximate number of males who need to be circumcised to prevent one case of each condition associated with lack of
††NNH number needed to harm, i.e., approximate number of males that need to be circumcised to see one of each particular (mostly minor) adverse effect. *The
minor bruising (from this method only) disappears naturally without any need for medical intervention, so is not included in overall calculation of easily-treatable
Table 2 Approximate figures for benefits of circumcision in infancy versus circumcision later
Critical age for maximum benefit
birth, highest risk in 1styear of life
birth, higher risk after onset of sexual activity
onset of sexual activity
onset of sexual activity
onset of sexual activity
onset of sexual activity
protection level unclear if performed after childhood
See main text for references to each condition
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 5 of 15
Parental acceptability of MC in infancy
Despite infancy having a favorable risk-benefit ratio for
MC, parents must make the ultimate decision over
whether to circumcise infant sons or not. A survey in
the USA found that 88% of participants were willing to
circumcise a son . A review of 13 studies in 9 sub-
Saharan African countries found a median of 81%
(range 70-90%) of women would choose to circumcise
their sons . After an informational session about
MC, 74% of men in the Dominican Republic expressed
a willingness to have their sons circumcised . In
India, a study of women, 78% of whom were Hindu (a
religious group that does not traditionally circumcise),
found that after being informed about risks and benefits,
81% said they would definitely have their boy(s) circum-
cised if the procedure were offered in a safe hospital set-
ting, free of charge . Only 1% said they would
definitely not have their boy circumcised . In gen-
eral, when choosing when it should be carried out, the
neonatal period or childhood appears to be more accep-
table than MC later.
Unfortunately, in a survey in California, 40% of par-
ents believed they had not been provided with enough
information about MC to make an informed choice
. For parents of boys who were not circumcised,
the doctor had not discussed circumcision with them, as
opposed to 15% of parents of boys who were circum-
cised. Twice as many parents would, in retrospect, have
wanted their boy to have been circumcised had they
known more. After reading information about MC, 86%
of parents were in favor of neonatal circumcision .
Overall, support was higher among parents born in the
USA, but lower among Hispanic parents.
The reasons for MC given by Australian parents
include family tradition, improved hygiene and reduced
risk of diseases and other conditions that MC protects
against . A study of African-American parents
found that 96% strongly believed pediatric circumcision
to be healthy, and 73% considered it essential .
Interestingly, the study found that it was the mothers
who most often made the final decision. This demon-
strates the need to engage and educate mothers and
pregnant women about MC for their infant boys.
Acceptability of adult MC
MC does have benefits at later ages, but a man must be
willing to avail himself of these by getting circumcised.
It is therefore important to examine the acceptability of
MC by adult males. In the USA, only 13% of uncircum-
cised heterosexual men indicated that they would be
willing to become circumcised to lower their risk of
HIV . In sub-Saharan Africa, however, where HIV
is an epidemic, an extensive review of 13 studies found
that a median of 65% (range 29-87%) of heterosexual
men were willing to be circumcised . Men and
women in a Kenyan study exhibited a good understand-
ing of the need to maintain safe sexual practices .
In India, of 467 uncircumcised heterosexual men in a
high-HIV prevalence region, 93% agreed that men
should consider MC for HIV prevention, and 58%
would accept free medical MC . Facilitators of
acceptability included improved penile hygiene (97%),
reduced HIV/STIs (91%), lower risk of penile cancer
(90%) and of cervical cancer in their female partner
(86%) . In Kenya, perceived improvement in sexual
pleasure was a facilitator [109,111]. In the Dominican
Republic willingness was only 29% initially, but after an
information session explaining the risks and benefits of
the procedure, this figure increased to 67% .
Acceptability in Thailand was 14%, rising to 25% after
an information session . In a Chinese study, 39%
were willing to be circumcised to protect themselves
from infection, and 46% would consider it to protect
their partner as well . In other samples of mostly
heterosexual Chinese men, 41% were willing to be cir-
cumcised in one study  and 25% in another .
In studies of MSM, a US study found that 53% of par-
ticipants were willing to be circumcised in one survey
, whereas another, conducted in San Francisco,
found 28% of the uncircumcised were willing to get cir-
cumcised if there was evidence of efficacy, but only 0.9%
of those for whom MC would be a relevant intervention
(mostly those who engaged in insertive anal intercourse
Table 3 Complications and their frequency for medical
MC of men in RCTs in South Africa (3.8%, all mild or
moderate), Kenya (1.7%, all mild or moderate) and
Uganda (4% mild, 3% moderate [breakdown not
disclosed] and 1% severe [shown])
Condition South AfricaKenya Uganda
Swelling or hematoma
Damage to the penis
Too much skin removed
Too little skin removed
Refs: [56-58], respectively
*At the 3-day post-operative visit pain was zero in 48% of men, mild in 52%
and severe in none
†Dashes indicate that the item was not reported in the publication
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 6 of 15
not using condoms) were willing . In Scotland, only
14% of MSM indicated their willingness to take part in a
circumcision trial . One study in China found 43%
of MSM were willing to be circumcised , and in
another, 8% were willing initially, but this rose to 31%
after an information session . The lower rates of
acceptability among MSM compared to heterosexual
men could be due to the fact that recent studies of MC
have not shown a benefit for most MSM in protection
against HIV [63,119]. However, these studies included
men who were both receptive and insertive anal sex
partners, and MC only offers protective benefits for
MSM who are mostly or exclusively insertive [63,119].
Even if a man is willing to be circumcised this does
not mean he will end up having the procedure done.
On the other hand, a lack of willingness to be circum-
cised should not be interpreted as a preference to be
uncircumcised. This is because a large number of obsta-
cles have been documented, such as fear of pain or
complications, embarrassment, inconvenience and cost.
The obstacles are discussed in the following sections. It
is reasonable to suppose that, if these barriers could be
addressed through the provision of correct information
and financial assistance, the fraction of men willing to
be circumcised would increase significantly. Better edu-
cation of parents before or soon after their baby is born
about actual risks should, by helping to ensure a cir-
cumcision in infancy, avoid later deliberations and bar-
riers to circumcision in adolescence and adulthood.
Since not all men are willing to be circumcised, even
when their infection risk from not doing so may be
high, there are clearly barriers to an affirmative decision,
particularly in high HIV prevalence settings where MC
is being rolled-out to reduce infections.
In a review of 13 acceptability studies of heterosexual
men in sub-Saharan Africa, concern about possible pain
was “the major barrier” to agreeing to be circumcised
. As well as pain, the long healing period, meaning
no sex, and MC not being part of the local culture, were
other impediments to getting a circumcision [109,111].
In Pune, India 71% of men expressed this concern .
Amongst MSM, fear of pain was a barrier for 62% of
men in the USA  and was 47% for Chinese men
. An acceptability study among African-American
parents found that despite high (88%) perception of pain
in their child, 73% strongly believed that MC was neces-
In practice, the pain associated with medical MC is far
less than men anticipate, and many are not aware that
local anesthesia is recommended. In the large RCTs,
severe pain was reported in only 0.8% of 1,568
participants in the South African trial , 0.3% of
2,326 HIV-negative men and 0.2% of 420 HIV positive
men in the Ugandan trial , and in the Kenyan trial,
of 1,334 men, “very mild” pain was reported in 52% at
postoperative day 3 and 11% at day 8, with none of the
men reporting pain more severe than “very mild” .
In a small trial of the “Shang Ring” device used to cir-
cumcise 40 men, pain scores (graded from 0 = no pain
to 10 = worst possible pain) averaged 3.5 during erec-
tions . Since erections would place the most ten-
sion on the wound during healing, erections likely
contribute maximally to pain scores.
It is instructive to consider here the issue of pain asso-
ciated with an infant circumcision. In infancy, local
anesthesia is effective in reducing or almost eliminating
pain during and after circumcision , although gau-
ging the level of pain experienced is more subjective
than what can be ascertained from communications by
older children or men. Of interest is that neonates exhi-
bit lower pain scores than older infants . Their
response to pain in general is less when delivered vagin-
ally than by cesarian section . As an aside, early
exposure to noxious or stressful stimuli decreases pain
sensitivity and behavior in adult life [125,126]. While
there may be some short-term memory of pain ,
no credible study has been conducted into long-term
memory of pain experienced in infancy. Irrespective of
such considerations we strongly support a recommenda-
tion of adequate pain control as being essential during
and after a circumcision at any age.
Thus, although pain is overall minor and should not
be seen as a major barrier, the fear of pain for later cir-
cumcision does represent a significant barrier.
Acceptability studies show cost to be a frequent barrier
to adult MC , although willingness is higher if
costs are borne by others. The barrier of cost, especially
for poor families, has not been helped by an unscientific
(but successful) lobbying campaign by MC opponents
that led 18 states in the USA to eliminate coverage for
circumcision by Medicaid, the public insurance program
that insured 50.3 million people as of June 2010, or
about one of every six Americans [128-130], and that
led to a ban on elective MC in public hospitals in all
but one state in Australia. While immediate costs to the
health system might have been reduced, the longer-term
costs for medical need and conditions caused by lack of
circumcision can only be greater [131,132].
The cost of a neonatal circumcision is far lower than
circumcision later . Cost estimates in the USA for a
circumcision are approximate $165  to $257 
in infancy, compared with approx. US$1,800-2,000 for
circumcision in adolescence or adulthood [131,134].
Even if the adolescent or adult male wants to be
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 7 of 15
circumcised, the cost can be prohibitive. Cost can be
reduced by insisting on a local anesthetic, since a gen-
eral anesthesiologist’s fees can be considerable. In devel-
oping countries, the cost of a circumcision is typically
US$59 for adults or adolescents, and US$15 for new-
Although the costs are greater in developed nations,
when represented as a fraction of GDP per capita ,
the figures are comparable between each: 0.4%-1.4% of
GDP per capita for neonatal and 4.2%-5.4% for MC in
adolescents or adults. Health interventions are consid-
ered highly cost-effective at a threshold below 1% of
GDP per capita . Thus the cost of adult MC repre-
sents a significant sum. Affordability of MC is not
helped by the lower earnings typical of younger men. In
developing countries, the extreme poverty of many peo-
ple means any cost is unaffordable by most of the
While MC protects against numerous conditions and
infections, in the case of HIV, in locations where HIV
prevalence is high and MC rates are low, increasing
adult MC should be regarded as an urgent objective,
while increasing infant MC should be an important
objective. In populations where HIV prevalence is still
low and MC rates are low, increasing infant MC should
be a priority.
In a cost-benefit analysis in the USA it was found that,
for a range of medical conditions, “much of the initial
cost of neonatal circumcision is eventually recovered
when disease and the medical need [in 9.6% of males]
for post-neonatal circumcision are prevented” .
This analysis was criticized as being overly conservative
In the case of HIV reduction, modeling in high-preva-
lence settings such as sub-Saharan Africa has shown
that adult MC would be highly cost-effective [137,138].
Similarly, neonatal MC was calculated to provide enor-
mous cost savings in populations where HIV prevalence
is high . Net cost per HIV infection averted in
Rwanda was US$3,932 for adolescent circumcision and
US$4,949 for adult circumcision . Reviews of 21
 and 5  cost-effectiveness studies found adult
MC to be very cost-effective, the cost per HIV infection
averted ranging from US$174 to US$2,808 . MC
was particularly cost-saving after due consideration of
the cost of HIV treatment, treatment cost being esti-
mated as US$2.3B over 20 years .
In low prevalence settings it has been argued that MC
is a waste of money as it will have little impact on HIV
[142-144]. This may not be true, however, as shown by
CDC calculations that found infant MC to be cost-sav-
ing for future HIV prevention in Black and Hispanic
males in the USA, although not in non-Hispanic White
males, perhaps because the latter have the highest MC
rates and much lower HIV prevalence .
When circumcision is performed in infancy the ability of
the inner and outer foreskin layers to adhere to each
other means sutures are rarely needed and the scar that
results is virtually invisible . Other factors include
the more rapid healing at this time of life, contributed
by age-associated differences in pro-inflammatory fac-
tors that might affect scar formation .
In studies on adult MC, both men and their partners
preferred the new appearance of the penis post-circum-
cision [146,147]. In the case of MSM, in a Chinese
study, only 2.5% of men expressed concern about cos-
metic outcome . Despite the fact that MC rarely
causes permanent disfigurement from scarring when
performed properly, the fear of a poor cosmetic out-
come is a documented deterrent of acceptability. For
example, a study in the South American Andes found
that MSM identified the risk of scarring as a significant
barrier to MC .
Sexual function and activity
The effect of an infant circumcision on sexual function
and activity cannot be determined directly, but can be
inferred from studies of men circumcised as adults.
Numerous studies show that MC has no adverse effect
on sexual function [147,149-152]. This finding is sup-
ported by data from the large RCTs in sub-Saharan
Africa [45,153] which included more than 10,000 parti-
cipants. A study in Turkey found no relationship
between age of childhood circumcision and overall sex-
ual function in men aged 22-44 . Since all men are
circumcised, mostly in childhood, in this Muslim coun-
try there was no control group of uncircumcised men to
compare with. Of seven areas of sexual function exam-
ined (frequency of intercourse, communication, degree
of satisfaction, avoidance, sensuality, ejaculatory function
and erectile function), the only difference was lower
avoidance in those circumcised between the ages of 0-2,
compared to the 3-5 and 6-12 age groups . A study
of MSM in Sydney reported that later circumcision was
associated with erectile dysfunction and premature eja-
culation difficulties in some men . Such difficulties
were not seen in men who had been circumcised in
infancy. In developed countries, most later circumcisions
tend to be for treatment of a medical condition and this
could offer a partial explanation for the finding. Since
men circumcised later were less likely to engage in
insertive anal intercourse, psychological effects after MC
for medical need, at an age where the male has cognitive
awareness of his previous painful penile problems, as
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 8 of 15
well as the surgery itself, seemed a probable explanation.
In a large Danish study in which circumcision, mostly
for medical reasons, accounted for the small proportion
of circumcised men surveyed, there were no differences
in a range of sexual measures, apart from a statistically
questionable  difference in ability to reach orgasm
during intercourse in a minority of 10 circumcised men
When circumcision is delayed beyond the onset of
sexual activity, the impact of a period of abstinence
must be considered. Analysis of data from three RCTs
found that relatively few men engaged in sexual inter-
course within 42 days of circumcision . It has been
suggested, not unreasonably, that this period of com-
plete abstinence (from both intercourse and masturba-
tion) is “often daunting and serves as a disincentive for
men to undertake the procedure” , and the recom-
mended post-surgical abstinence period was found to be
a significant barrier to MC uptake in Kenya . Cir-
cumcision in infancy, or indeed at any time before pub-
erty, eliminates such an obstacle.
A range of beliefs exists about the effect of MC on sex-
ual pleasure and function. A comprehensive review of
acceptability studies in sub-Saharan Africa noted that
men who were willing to be circumcised considered that
MC would not adversely affect sexual pleasure .
Subsequent surveys support this, with many men con-
sidering that MC will enhance their sexual performance
and satisfaction . However, a belief that MC might
reduce their sexual pleasure was the reason 46% of men
in a Dominican Republic study were reluctant to be cir-
cumcised , as was also the case for 14% of men in
an Indian study , and 5.3% of men in a Chinese
survey . In the latter study approximately three
times as many men thought circumcision would
increase, rather than diminish, their sexual pleasure
. In the USA, 18% of men said they would consider
circumcision because it might increase sexual pleasure,
this being associated with willingness to be circumcised
. In another US study, 35% of African American par-
ents thought circumcision increases pleasure, although
this was not a significant factor in deciding on circumci-
sion for their boys .
Fears and anxieties about sexual pleasure appear to be
substantial. This may be especially problematic in devel-
oped countries with widespread Internet access, as this
medium is dominated by anti-circumcision websites,
many of which spuriously claim that MC severely harms
the sexual experience. This was documented in a survey
of 73 Internet sites devoted to MC .
Scientific evidence regarding the sexual effects of MC
does not substantiate the purported harms to sexual
pleasure. The better-quality studies (in terms of sample
size, rigor of methodology, accuracy of analysis of find-
ings, and generalizability of results) have found no
adverse effect of MC on penile sensitivity [151,161-163],
sensation during arousal , sexual satisfaction
[146,151], premature ejaculation , intravaginal eja-
culatory latency time [166,167], or erectile function
[147,149-152]. Two RCTs found MC does not adversely
affect sexual function, sensitivity or satisfaction [45,153],
with one of these studies showing that the sexual
experience of most men was enhanced after circumci-
sion . Some studies have found that MC reduced
the risk of premature ejaculation [168,169].
In several studies, perceptions about partners’ sexual
pleasure and preferences were also important predictors
of willingness to be circumcised . A study of Chi-
nese MSM found that 15% thought MC would improve
the partner’s sexual pleasure, while 4% thought it would
decrease it, and 68% were unsure . In sub-Saharan
Africa, 69% (range 47-79%) of women preferred circum-
cision for their partners because of its perceived aes-
thetic value , consistent with credible studies in
developed countries [170,171].
Credible studies of the female partners of adult MC
patients have found no adverse effect on sexual experi-
ence. For example, data from 455 women in a Ugandan
RCT indicated no change (57%) or an improvement
(40%) in sexual satisfaction after their male partner had
been circumcised  and a Mexican study found no
change in sexual satisfaction, desire, pain during vaginal
penetration or orgasm . A study in Sydney of MSM
found no overall differences between the circumcised
and uncircumcised in participation in insertive or recep-
tive anal intercourse, difficulty in using condoms, or
sexual problems such as loss of libido . A survey of
US women found 82% preferred the circumcised penis
for fellatio, with only 2% preferring the uncircumcised
The fact that circumcision does not impair - and for
many may enhance - a man’s sensation and sexual plea-
sure, should reassure men considering whether to get
circumcised . It should also reassure parents who
may wonder about this issue when deciding to have
their infant son circumcised.
Very few credible studies have examined psychological
factors associated with MC.
A study of Californian boys in their early teenage
years found that circumcised boys - the majority of
whom were circumcised neonatally - were more satisfied
with their circumcision status than were uncircumcised
boys . A study in Sweden, where MC is uncom-
mon, found no serious psychological disorders amongst
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 9 of 15
boys circumcised in childhood, although shyness in the
change-room was noted in 7% .
An acceptability study conducted in the Sichuan pro-
vince of China found 53% of men were concerned that
MC would be “too sensitive and embarrassing” .
Concerns were also expressed that men might be
mocked for undertaking the surgery.
In India, where MC is a mark of religious affiliation,
41% of mostly Hindu men were concerned that MC was
not part of their culture, while 30% were afraid of
stigma or rejection . MC has historic implications
in India, where Muslim men were targeted for violence
based on their circumcision status during the Hindu
fundamentalist, anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002 and sub-
sequent riots . It has been suggested that MC in
India might be more acceptable to STI clinic attendees
than others .
Psychological effects were the probable explanation for
findings in MSM that later circumcision, usually per-
formed to treat a medical problem, was associated with
lower insertive anal intercourse . As referred to
earlier, this is likely because, when older, the male has
cognitive awareness of his previous painful penile pro-
blems, as well as the surgery itself.
There is some concern about risk-compensation (the
tendency to stop using condoms and increase the num-
ber of sexual partners) following MC, although in most
studies in which men were counseled this was not seen
[179,180]. It has been suggested that neonatal MC may
reduce the chances of a change in behavior due to cir-
cumcision status, as the male will not perceive any
change in risk compared to what might transpire if the
circumcision had taken place at an age when he might
be sexually active .
While these various psychological problems should be
mitigated by making MC normative in a community,
just as with most fears and anxieties, the prospect of
such concerns would be largely eliminated if MC were
performed in infancy.
Absence from work or school
Unlike the convenience of circumcising a baby that
sleeps most of the time and is a dependent in society,
circumcision during productive work or school years
will typically require taking time off, although the
amount of time off required is typically small. In one
study of men circumcised with the Shang Ring device,
men took an average of 1.1 days off work; 80% were
back at work by day 2, with only 20% requiring more
than 2 days, and little disruption to activities or discom-
fort was reported for the week the ring was in place
. Eighteen percent of men in the study reported
disruption to their work while the device was present,
and 30% had not resumed routine leisure activities by 7
days. In the large Kenyan RCT, only 4% of men required
3 days or more before they could return to normal
activities . In a study of childhood MC, median
times of 5 days to return to normal activity and 7 to
return to school have been reported . This may
have been because children are usually more active than
adults, thus increasing the chances of injury and so
prolonging the healing period.
Nowhere is MC illegal. Concern has, however, been
expressed by some authors about the ethical implica-
tions of circumcising boys who are too young to give
consent [19,20]. The “autonomy-centered” argument of
these authors is that MC should be delayed until the
individual can decide for himself. But it has been
pointed out that this argument is not consistent with
the rationale behind other interventions, such as vacci-
nations, which are similarly performed before the child
is old enough to consent and which carry similar risks
of complications [183-185]. The authors of one bioethi-
cal analysis concluded that MC is appropriate for paren-
tal discretion . Other bioethicists have argued that
MC in the face of high risk of infection and disease is
ethically imperative, as to do otherwise would risk
human lives  and under such circumstances MC
should be regarded as a justifiable public health measure
. Given the high infection and disease risk overall
to the male and his female partners (Table 1) there
would be few populations in the world that would not
benefit from MC.
Infancy presents a “window of opportunity” for circum-
cision. It is associated with substantially lower costs,
lower risk of complications when performed by an
experienced operator in a clinical or other appropriate
setting, and lower lifetime risk of a variety of adverse
conditions and infections . The health benefits
include protection against urinary tract infection and
thus permanent damage to the still-growing kidney,
reduced likelihood of penile inflammation, and elimina-
tion of risk of phimosis, which impedes micturition and
results in difficult and painful erections in adolescence
and adulthood. It also means tearing of the fragile fore-
skin and frenulum is avoided. Circumcision means an
assurance of greatly reduced risk of penile cancer later
in life, no smegma, better hygiene, and lower risk of var-
ious STIs. These not only include HIV that is an epi-
demic in some locations, but also oncogenic HPVs and
genital herpes that are an epidemic worldwide. In the
future female sexual partners of males, infant MC
means they too will be at reduced risk of STIs and cer-
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
Page 10 of 15
Some of the arguments against waiting until later to
• Protection against UTIs and damage to the fragile
pediatric kidney is lost.
• Infant MC eliminates risk of phimosis and balanitis
in childhood and after puberty.
• If circumcision is performed after boys become
sexually active benefits associated with STI prevention
• The risk of complications is higher for later
• The cost (to the individual or the public purse) is
much higher, and often unaffordable, for later
• Educational resources for boys to make an informed
decision are quite limited.
• Large-scale adolescent circumcision would strain
• Boys who later choose circumcision will likely wish
it had been performed in infancy.
• Many older boys and men may not want to face an
operation even though they wish to be circumcised.
• The momentum amongst major international and
American health and medical organizations towards
encouraging circumcision, especially in infancy.
Circumcision in infancy avoids any embarrassment of
having it done later, as well as anxieties about pain,
complications and adverse sexual effects, even though
these are minimal or not supported by evidence. It also
avoids arguments about whether there might be adverse
psychological consequences for MC performed later in
childhood. And absence from work or school is avoided.
There are fewer barriers to MC in infancy. The infant
is less mobile, so facilitating the use of local anesthesia,
the procedure is simpler, healing is quicker, the cos-
metic outcome is superior, and cost-effectiveness is
high, as is acceptability. The neonatal period should
therefore be regarded as the optimal time to perform
circumcision. It is viewed as a vital component of public
health strategies aimed at realizing high levels of MC in
the population . The procedure should be per-
formed by a trained professional using appropriate local
anesthesia in a clean environment. Circumcision outside
of such a setting is ill-advised, so explaining why clinical
MC is increasingly being made available in European
countries to Muslim families.
We recommend that evidence-based policies be devel-
oped regarding the availability of infant MC in all coun-
tries worldwide. It has been suggested that policies
surrounding neonatal MC should be integrated into
existing health systems as part of postnatal care ,
with adolescent and adult MC constituting “catch-up”
campaigns that would be phased out over time .
This should not detract from the immediate urgent
need for safe voluntary adult medical MC services in
high-HIV-prevalence regions in particular.
1School of Medical Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006,
Australia.2Circumcision Independent Reference and Commentary Service,
157 Stand Lane, Radcliffe, Manchester M26 1JR, UK.3Global Youth Coalition
on HIV/AIDS, Pretoria, South Africa.4Department of African-American Studies,
Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115, USA.5Department of Pathology,
School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21287, USA.
6Research & Education Association on Circumcision Health Effects,
Bloomington, MN 55425, USA.7Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics,
University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.8Divisions of AIDS &
Infectious Diseases, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA.
9Pregnancy Advisory Centre, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide, SA
5011, Australia.10Department of Education and Behavior, University of North
Carolina School of Public Health, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.11Center for
Neonatal Care, Orlando, FL 32804, USA.12Sexually Transmitted Infections
Research Centre, Westmead Hospital and University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW
BJM and JHW drafted the manuscript. JHW performed the statistical analyses
shown in Figure 1. BJM, JHW, JB, RGM, AART, RHG, SAB, RCB, JDK, RJW, DTH,
TEW and AM made substantial contributions to successive drafts and
thereby to the intellectual content of this article. All authors read and
approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Received: 2 September 2011 Accepted: 28 February 2012
Published: 28 February 2012
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The pre-publication history for this paper can be accessed here:
Cite this article as: Morris et al.: A ‘snip’ in time: what is the best age to
circumcise? BMC Pediatrics 2012 12:20.
Morris et al. BMC Pediatrics 2012, 12:20
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