Israeli Circumcision Experts Head to Africa

Techniques Honed With Russians Helps Continent Fight AIDS

Celebrating Circumcision: Israeli health professionals celebrate with South African colleagues after completing a training mission.
Courtesy of Operation Abraham
Celebrating Circumcision: Israeli health professionals celebrate with South African colleagues after completing a training mission.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 26, 2011, issue of January 06, 2012.
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Its expertise has also impacted government policy in the AIDS-ravaged southern African nation of Swaziland, where about a quarter of all adults are infected with the virus that causes AIDS. In 2008, the government there had drawn up protocols for doctors, recommending a particular method — sleeve resection. However, after Operation Abraham convinced officials that a different method — forceps-guided — was more suitable for mass adult circumcision, the protocols were amended accordingly.

The Israeli doctors’ involvement goes far beyond the theoretical level. Over the past four years, 10 delegations of Israeli healthcare professionals have travelled to the cities of Manzini and Mbabane in Swaziland.

They also went to KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, where circumcision is in particular demand, both because of the high rate of AIDS and the fact that the king of the predominant Zulu tribe, Goodwill Zwelithini, reintroduced it as a rite for his tribe two centuries after a predecessor suspended it.

Tens of thousands of circumcisions have been performed, and doctors from Zambia and Zimbabwe have visited to learn skills that they have taken back to their own countries. Running the clinics are Operation Abraham trainees: 70 doctors, each of whom can perform some 40 circumcisions a day, and 130 nurses and other support staff.

He said that while the exchange between local professionals and Israeli visitors has mainly been on medical matters, the roots of circumcision in the religions of the visiting Israelis and Senegalese have proved “intellectually simulating and fascinating” for his staff, many of whom are Christians.

For the Operation Abraham volunteers, the delegations are physically and emotionally taxing.

“It’s so sad to go and see so many people suffering from AIDS, but we felt that with these efforts it may not be as bad in the future,” said Lilach Malatskey, a family practitioner who led the latest delegation.

Inon Schenker, Operation Abraham’s global health consultant, believes that the benefits of the team’s work goes beyond AIDS prevention. The populations signing up for circumcision tend to steer clear of doctors, and lack sex education and medical attention for other sexual and reproductive health issues. The fact they are visiting clinics for circumcision presents an “unbelievable opportunity” to rectify this — one that team members are encouraging local doctors to use, both by providing educational material to read during waiting time and by talking to patients. “I saw one young man in KwaZulu-Natal, and taking a few extra minutes to talk to him,” Schenker said. “you could see his eyes shining in front of you. Everyone he heard was preaching to put on condoms, but the ideas we were talking about, such as respect of women, went beyond that. [It] made a difference.”


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