Eleven Babies Contracted Herpes During Circumcision

By Amir Khan on June 8, 2012 9:13 AM EDT

Corcumcision
A rare circumcision practice is putting babies at risk of herpes, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Photo: Creative Commons)

A rare circumcision practice is putting babies at risk of herpes, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice in which the circumciser places his mouth on the newborn's penis and sucks away blood carries a risk of transmitting the herpes virus and can be fatal.

"Oral contact with a newborn's open wound risks transmission of [herpes simplex virus] and other pathogens," the researchers wrote in the report. "Circumcision is a surgical procedure that should be performed under sterile conditions."

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The procedure, known as metzitzah b'peh (direct orogenital suction), caused 11 babies to be hospitalized, two of which died, between November 2000 and December 2011.

"In the past [direct orogenital suction] was thought to limit complications and prevent infection, but today in order to prevent infection, many mohels use a sterilized glass tube or straw to clean the wound, including some orthodox rabbis," CBS News reported.

Many of the infant's parents were unaware that the technique would be used, according to the report. Before the baby undergoes a circumcision, parents should inquire as to whether direct orogenital suction will be used, researchers said.

"Health-care professionals advising parents and parents choosing Jewish ritual circumcision should inquire in advance whether direct orogenital suction will be performed, and orogenital suction should be avoided," according to the report.

The rate of newborns males who contract herpes and undergo direct orogenital suction  is 24.4 per 100,000, which is 3.4 times higher than the rate in the general population, according to the study. Other cases of herpes are passed during birth.

Herpes is spread through direct contact and is characterized by painful sores. Although the sores heal, the disease cannot be cured and people with herpes typically have several outbreaks a year. In addition to the commonly known oral and genital herpes, the disease can also affect the eyes, skin and other parts of the body. The virus is particularly dangerous for newborns and people with weak immune systems.

Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, told the New York Times in March that the Jewish community is aware of the risks that come with the practice.

"We're not oblivious to what's going on," he said. The worst thing that could happen is if the authorities regulate this practice, then it could go underground. ... I think the practice would continue, but there could be significant difficulty in gathering evidence."

Ultimately, direct orogenital suction is extremely dangerous, researchers said, and parents need to be aware of the risk that comes from it.

"There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn," Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner, told Time Magazine. "Parents considering ritual Jewish circumcision need to know that circumcision should only be performed under sterile conditions, like any other procedures that create open cuts, whether by mohelim or medical professionals."

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