Tel Aviv — When hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to Israel from the Former Soviet Union, they never dreamed that their absorption process could prove a missing link in a massive plan to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa.
At the height of the wave of arrivals in the 1990s, Israeli doctors came face to face with a huge backlog of immigrants demanding circumcision. They struggled to keep up, but gained critical expertise in circumcising large numbers of adults.
Nearly two decades later, those skills are proving crucial in the fight against AIDS thousands of miles away, in Africa. In the past five years, doctors have become convinced that circumcision dramatically helps to reduce contraction of HIV/AIDS. International prevention agencies believe that every five to 15 circumcisions performed in Africa will prevent one person contracting HIV/AIDS.
“Any Tom, Dick or Harry with basic surgical training can do two or three circumcisions a day,” said Douglas Ross, CEO of St Mary’s Catholic Mission Hospital Trust in Durban, South Africa, where doctors have received training from an Israeli consortium dubbed Operation Abraham. “But to be able to do 40, you need specialist training.”
“What I got from Operation Abraham [is] tailor-made for the South African setting,” added Ross, after a two-week-long Israeli medical mission departed in November.
Encouraged by the results on the ground, the United Nations and United States recently announced a five-year plan to radically increase circumcision in the HIV-stricken continent. Working with African governments, they have so far circumcised 600,000 men. They are aiming to perform 20 million new adult circumcisions over the course of the plan.
The challenge is preparing doctors to cope with the fast flow of patients that the plan will bring. That is where Israeli medics come in. Operation Abraham, a volunteer outreach initiative, is sending doctors from Israel to different corners of Africa to train local doctors like those at St. Mary’s.
“Before the aliyah from the Former Soviet Union, we in Israel had very little experience with adult circumcision, but all of a sudden in the 1990s we became experts,” said Eitan Gross, medical director of the Operation Abraham outreach initiative. “There is no other place in the world where within a few years they performed 100,000 male circumcisions, so we are keen to share our knowledge.”
Since Gross’s nonprofit, a consortium of nine Israeli medical bodies including the Jerusalem AIDS Project and the Hadassah Medical Organization, was established in 2007, it has worked in five African countries.
In 2008, the non-profit was invited to give a workshop in Senegal. Afterwards, the Senegal Ministry of Health and the Senegal Medical Association became partners in Operation Abraham.