Two Babies Sickened by Circumcision Rite

N.J. Infants Infected With Herpes Transmitted From Mohel

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published March 16, 2012, issue of March 23, 2012.
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Two Jewish infants in New Jersey were recently infected with — but survived — a herpes virus attributed to their ritual circumcisers’ use of an oral suctioning technique that is said to have caused the death of an infant in New York in September.

Dr. Margaret Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Monmouth Medical Center, told the Forward that a newborn boy was admitted to the center within the past month, infected with the virus, known as HSV-1, within days of his circumcision. The other case “was in the last year or two,” said Fisher, a pediatric infectious disease specialist. Both boys had herpes lesions on their genitals but “extremely mild cases,” she said, and both were successfully treated for 10 days with intravenous anti-viral medication.

The two babies were admitted to a hospital close to Lakewood, N.J., which is home to a large ultra-Orthodox community.

News of the New Jersey infections comes amid renewed debate sparked by the report of the baby who died in September of HSV-1, acquired when his mohel orally suctioned his circumcision wound, according to New York City officials. The procedure, known in Hebrew as metzitzah b’peh, was last blamed for causing an infant death in New York in 2006.

The death last September occurred at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center, and the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, said recently that he is conducting a criminal investigation into the matter. Metzitzah b’peh, which is practiced in particular by ultra-Orthodox mohelim, has never been illegal. Asked if Hynes’s investigation meant that the procedure might now be a crime, spokesman Jerry Schmetterer replied, “I don’t believe it is criminal, but I’m not a lawyer.” Pressed further on what law the D.A. believed could have been violated, Schmetterer said, “I’m not saying another word.”

The family of the infant who died in September has declined to disclose to authorities who performed their son’s circumcision, or brit mila.

In 2007, the mohel linked as an HSV-1 carrier to the death of a baby boy was prohibited under Section 16 of New York State’s Public Health Law by the state Department of Health from performing metzitzah b’peh “in and throughout the state of New York.” The mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, was also prohibited from engaging in any other practice in which he “[allows his] mouth or oral fluids to come in direct contact with an infant’s genitals…”

But a story posted online by The Jewish Week of New York on March 13 reported that Fischer was taped in a phone conversation within the last two weeks saying it “was not a problem” for him to perform the procedure, in apparent violation of the ban.

Meanwhile, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a meeting March 12, bringing together state health department officials and ultra-Orthodox leaders. His liaison to the Jewish community, Emily Saltzman, referred questions about the meeting to his press office, which did not respond to multiple messages seeking further information.


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