Photo Credit: joepyrek via Flickr
Masai Village ceremony, Tanzania

Between 2002 and 2006, according to Jennifer A Downs, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, three large randomized controlled trials in sub-Saharan Africa demonstrated that male circumcision reduces new HIV infections in men by approximately 60%.

Based on these findings, the World Health Organization recommended male circumcision as an HIV prevention strategy in countries with high levels of HIV and a low prevalence of male circumcision – 14 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa, Downs told on Sunday.


But in many of these countries, according to Downs, the rates of male circumcision remained sluggish. “In northwest Tanzania, where we work, there are a number of barriers to male circumcision,” she explained. “Some of these barriers are cultural, tribal, economic, and religious.”

The WHO team hypothesized that male circumcision could be increased if religious leaders were taught about its advantages, and become well versed enough in the message that they would be able – and willing – to discuss it with their congregations.

To test the theory, the team utilized male circumcision outreach campaigns from the Tanzanian Ministry of Health, which, she notes, provided drama and open-air announcements about male circumcision, but did not specifically educate religious leaders.

They picked 16 villages to receive the standard teaching from the Ministry of Health, but in 8 of these villages, the team also provided an educational seminar for religious leaders from all Christian denominations, discussing the religious, cultural, and historical aspects of male circumcision.

“The church leaders themselves then decided how to bring this education back to their congregations,” Downs said, relating that in the 8 villages in which the religious leaders did not receive the educational seminar, 29.5% of the total male population sought circumcision; while in the villages in which the religious leaders did receive the educational seminar, 53.8% of the total male population sought circumcision.

“I think that our study proves the validity of the concept that a cross-disciplinary collaboration that strives to educate and equip religious leaders is a powerful way to promote healthy behavior,” Downs told, adding, “We worked closely with our Tanzanian colleagues to design and implement an educational seminar that would be relevant in our setting.”


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