Newborn Dies from Herpes After Circumcision Ritual

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Saturday March 10, 2012

New York City prosecutors are investigating the death of a two-week-old baby after the newborn reportedly died of herpes contracted through a controversial ritual, circumcision with oral suction.

The practice known as metzitzah b'peh in Hebrew (oral suction) is when the mohel (a Jewish person trained in the practice of brit milah "covenant of circumcision") sucks blood from the circumcision wound to clean it during a bris -- a Jewish religious circumcision ceremony preformed on eight-day-old male babies. "The traditional reason for this procedure is to minimize the potential for postoperative complications, although the practice has been implicated in the spreading of herpes to the infant," according to Wikipedia.

The newborn died at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn on Sept. 28 from Type 1 herpes, which he contracted from the ritual, the medical examiner's office claims. The New York Times reported on the incident following police inquiry.

The Times noted that ultra-Orthodox communities and some Orthodox Jewish communities practice metzitzah b'peh even though New York City has tried to prevent them from doing so by educating the communities about the possible health risks.

New York City reported three cases in 2003 and 2004 when a newborn contracted Type 1 herpes as a result of circumcision. One of the boys, a twin from Staten Island, died. The circumcisions were done by mohel, Rabbi Yitzechok Fischer, who was banned from performing circumcisions by the city. Although authorities have not determined who the mohel was in the latest case, the Times says that it is believed that Rabbi Fischer was not under investigation.

Deaths caused by circumcisions are low. The American Academy of Family Physicians says that death is rare and about 1 infant in 500,000 die from circumcision.

In the summer of 2011, a group of "inatactivists" (people who believe baby boys have the right to not be circumcised) in San Francisco proposed a ban on male infant circumcisions. The city's legal counsel, however, said that there is no way the proposed ban can answer state law requirements.

Those who opposed the ban filed a suit to take the measure off ballots. They said that the legislation threatens religious freedoms, parental rights and violates state laws as California does not allow local governments to restrict medical procedures.

"It's a measure that would basically infringe upon my rights as a Muslim to practice here," one plaintiff, Leticia Preza, a 31-year-old mother of two, told the Associated Press. "It would also take away my rights as a parent to choose what's a good procedure for my child."

San Francisco's Superior Court Judge Loretta Giorgi ruled that it would not appear on the November ballot.

In January three studies reported that circumcising heterosexual men may be one of the best ways to prevent the spread of AIDS. The studies claim that the risk of infecting someone could be reduced by 60 percent or more.

Public health officials in Africa want to circumcise 20 million men by 2015 but currently only 600,000 have had the procedure. Although a number of African countries do not have sufficient resources to circumcise men quickly and safely, health experts from the World Health Organization are considering new tools that could be a fast and safe way to perform the procedure.

One tool is called PrePex and was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in January. The device uses a rubber band that compresses the foreskin against a plastic ring, which causes the foreskin to die in a few hours due to a lack of blood. PrePex is also less painful than similar products on the market.

Rwanda's health ministry's scientists used the tool on 590 men and it was reported that two nurse teams could finish a procedure in three minutes. Dr. Jason Reed, an epidemiologist in the global AIDS division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that three two-nurse PrePex teams could circumcise 400 men a day.

In New York City, a rabbi who works for the principal Orthodox Jewish organization told the Times that the mohels who performed the ritual circumcision were well versed in how to do it hygienically. "The worst thing that could happen is if the authorities regulate this practice, then it could go underground," the rabbi said.

In 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who is himself Jewish) assembled rabbis in an attempt to wean them from the practice -- unsuccessfully. "'We do not change," an ultra-Orthodox rabbi told the Times. "And we will not change."