At baseline, 18.6% of participants reported a circumcised primary partner, 70.8% had an uncircumcised partner, and 9.7% said they did not know whether their partner was circumcised (Table 1). Circumcision was more common among partners of Ugandan women (35.7%) than among partners of women from Zimbabwe (9.4%) or Thailand (7.4%). Although the circumcision prevalence varied substantially by country, it did not vary by referral population within Uganda or Thailand. Of 575 participants reporting that they did not know whether their primary partners were circumcised, 409 (71.1%) were Thai, 163 (28.3%) were Zimbabwean, and 3 (0.5%) were Ugandan. Participants' age did not vary substantially by circumcision status (median 25 years for women with circumcised and uncircumcised partners and 26 years among women who did not know whether their partners were circumcised). The median level of education for all women, regardless of partner circumcision status, was 9 years. Most women (87.2%) cohabitated with their primary partner.
Women with circumcised partners reported somewhat riskier sexual behavior at baseline than women with uncircumcised partners or those who did not know whether their partners were circumcised. Participants with circumcised partners had a lower median age at coital debut (17 vs. 18 years for women with uncircumcised partners and 19 for women who did not know their partners' circumcision status). Although the median number of sex partners in the last 3 months was the same for all groups (1 partner), women with circumcised partners had a higher mean number of partners (1.9 vs. 1.3 and 1.5 partners for women with uncircumcised partners and partners of unknown circumcision status, respectively). Similarly, each group reported a median of 0 nights that the primary partner was away from home in the last month, but women with circumcised partners had a higher mean number of nights when the partner was away (mean 8.7 vs. 5.4 nights for women with uncircumcised partners and 3.8 nights for women who did not know whether their partners were circumcised). The majority of women (71.7% overall) reported ever using male condoms, including a higher proportion of women with circumcised partners (78.0%) than uncircumcised partners (71.5%). Fewer women who did not know whether their partner was circumcised reported ever using male condoms (58.1%).
Prevalent STI at baseline was relatively rare (Table 1), and did not vary substantially by baseline MC status of the primary partner. At the enrollment visit, 3.5% of participants were diagnosed with Ct (3.7%, 3.2%, and 5.4% of women with partners who were circumcised, uncircumcised, and of unknown circumcision status, respectively), 1.6% with GC (2.3%, 1.5%, and 1.2%, respectively), and 2.6% with Tv (2.5%, 2.7%, and 2.1%, respectively).
Unadjusted and Adjusted Multivariable Models
Ct was the most common incident STI in this cohort, with 408 women acquiring a new Ct infection during follow-up. The unadjusted IR among women with circumcised partners was 4.5/100 person-years (PY), compared with 3.9/100 PY for participants with uncircumcised partners and 5.1/100 PY among those who did not know whether their partners were circumcised (Table 2).
Time to Ct infection was similar for women with circumcised versus uncircumcised partners After adjustment for contraceptive method, age, age at coital debut, and country, the adjusted HR was 1.25 (95% CI 0.96–1.63) (Table 3).
The unadjusted IR for GC among participants with circumcised primary partners was 3.8/100 PY, compared with 3.0/100 PY for those with uncircumcised partners and 1.7/100 PY for women whose partners' circumcision status was unknown (Table 2).
The adjusted HR comparing time to initial GC for women with circumcised partners with those with uncircumcised partners was 0.99 (95% CI 0.74–1.31) (Table 3).
The unadjusted IRs for Tv were 4.5/100 PY for women reporting circumcised primary partners, 3.8/100 PY for participants with uncircumcised partners, and 1.2/100 PY for women who did not know whether their partners were circumcised (Table 2).
The adjusted HR for Tv comparing women with circumcised partners with those with uncircumcised partners was 1.05 (95% CI 0.80–1.36) (Table 3).
Any STI: Ct, GC, or Tv
Ct, GC, or Tv was diagnosed in 887 women during the follow-up period: women with circumcised partners had an IR of 10.3/100 PY; participants with uncircumcised partners had an IR of 9.5/100 PY; and women who did not know whether their partners were circumcised had an IR of 7.2/100 PY (Table 2).
The adjusted HR comparing time to initial STI for women with circumcised versus uncircumcised partners was 1.02 (95% CI 0.85–1.21) (Table 3).
Modeling results were largely unchanged when examining baseline (rather than time-varying) partner circumcision status. Because baseline condom use and baseline prevalence of GC and Tv was lower among Thai participants, we also examined whether restricting the analysis population to only African women affected our results; effect estimates were largely unchanged (data not shown).
When we excluded follow-up time where women reported multiple partnerships, our restricted datasets contained approximately 2.5% fewer person-years of follow-up. After restriction, nearly all effect estimates were unchanged (data not shown). The HRs for Ct, however, strengthened somewhat, particularly in the adjusted model (restricted HR 1.37, 95% CI 1.04–1.80).
In both unadjusted and adjusted analyses, women with circumcised partners had similar risk of Ct, GC, and Tv infections as women with uncircumcised partners.
Our findings largely agree with prior studies on MC and men's risk of these STIs. The literature on men's risk of Ct and Tv suggests no protective effect of circumcision (although the few studies of MC and Tv make overall conclusions difficult). Although the literature on MC and men's risk of GC is mixed, most reports suggest that MC is not associated with men's GC risk.
At least 2 mechanisms exist by which MC could affect women's STI risk. First, MC may change men's STI risk, and subsequently alter the probability that women will be exposed to infected men. However, as described above, no strong evidence supports a conclusively protective role for MC against men's acquisition of the 3 STIs evaluated here. Second, MC may change the probability of transmission from infected men to susceptible women—the absence of a foreskin may alter the efficiency of pathogen transmission. Although Ct, GC, and Tv infections in men occur nearly exclusively in the urethra,36 the foreskin is a repository for shed cells and secretions, and a moist, hospitable environment for pathogen growth. STI-infected, uncircumcised men may therefore expose their female partners to a higher pathogen burden than STI-infected circumcised men. Transient infectious organisms that do not ultimately adhere and infect exposed men may also have longer viability in uncircumcised men. We found no reports comparing pathogen burdens in circumcised versus uncircumcised men.
Three clinical trials found a strong protective effect of MC against men's risk of HIV acquisition.1–3 More than 50 cohort and cross-sectional studies found largely similar results. Few prospective evaluations have characterized the effect of MC on women's HIV risk, and the small number of existing studies have had mixed findings: an analysis of these HC-HIV data found no effect of MC on women's HIV risk in women from FP/MCH populations,33 whereas 3 other prospective studies determined that women with circumcised partners had lower HIV risk than women with uncircumcised partners (in Tanzania37 and Uganda13,38). A more recent evaluation in Rakai, Uganda, found reduced, but nonsignificant, reductions in HIV risk for women with circumcised partners.5
Our analysis has a number of limitations. First, because this is a secondary data analysis, some variables that may have contributed to the analysis were unmeasured (e.g., potential confounders including women's or partners' religion).39 In addition, an evaluation of MC and women's risk of syphilis or chancroid might have been informative, because MC has been associated with reduced risk of these 2 infections in men.40 Unfortunately, we did not have incidence data on syphilis or chancroid in our cohort.
Second, women's sexual behavior, as well as MC, were self-reported and may suffer from recall and social desirability biases. Misclassification of self-reported MC particularly has been noted as a limitation in previous studies,39,41 and several have attempted to characterize the accuracy with which men and their female partners can classify circumcision.4,16,20,21,25,42–50 If MC misclassification exists and is nondifferential (not associated with STI status), the observed effect of MC will be biased toward the null. In a previous analysis, using 3 data-driven scenarios (R. Gray, unpublished data)48,50 we examined the effect of MC misclassification on the observed association between MC and women's risk of HIV acquisition;33 that sensitivity analysis resulted in little change in our findings for MC and women's HIV risk.33 We expect bias to be similarly minimal in these analyses of women's STI risk.
We saw further evidence against MC misclassification when examining data from various sources, including the Demographic and Health surveys (DHS),51–53 reporting that circumcision prevalence is 25% in Uganda, 10% in Zimbabwe, and 7% in Thailand. Our measured MC prevalences in Zimbabwe (9%) and Thailand (7%) match the DHS estimates, but our estimate for Uganda (36%) is higher than expected given the DHS finding of 25%. This may be evidence of misclassification, though if women were uncertain, we expect that more of them would have reported not knowing their partners' circumcision status. Instead, only 3 participants in Uganda reported a partner with unknown MC status, compared with 163 in Zimbabwe and 409 in Thailand. The higher observed MC prevalence in Uganda may also be evidence of selection issues (e.g., a higher than expected proportion of participants with Muslim partners), which could further be associated with behavioral differences; as indicated above, we did not collect data on women's or partner's religion, so we cannot explore this possible confounder. Finally, we note that in societies where MC is not traditionally practiced, men who seek out circumcision may do so to relieve genitourinary problems (e.g., recurrent STIs or balanitis). Because we did not have information on women's partners' age at or reason for circumcision, we could not identify which partners chose circumcision for these reasons. These men may be at higher STI risk, and analyzing them in the same category as other circumcised men may have skewed the observed MC-STI associations.
We also did not know the STI status of women's partners. This information would have permitted various other informative analyses, including separate characterization of the effect of MC on men's initial STI risk and the effect of MC on the STI transmissibility from infected men to susceptible women. Instead, our measures of effect capture the overall, combined effect of these 2 pathways. In addition, the impact of MC on reducing STI transmission from men to women could be different by men's HIV status, if HIV-infected men had more frequent or severe episodes of STI, yet the HIV status of women's partners was also unmeasured.
As with any laboratory procedure, methods to diagnose Ct, GC, and Tv are not always accurate. Microscopy (wet mount), the diagnostic method for trichomonas, has poor sensitivity (49%–67%) but nearly perfect specificity (often cited as 100%) compared with PCR.54–57 A substudy conducted just among Zimbabwean participants at selected visits, which assessed Tv as a risk factor for HIV acquisition, compared wet mount with PCR for Tv diagnosis. This investigation concluded that the sensitivity and specificity for Tv diagnosis by microscopy was similar to published reports.58 We anticipate that misclassification of Tv status would be nondifferential (not associated with MC), suggesting that the observed effect estimates may be biased toward the null. The AMPLICOR CT/NG test, which has published sensitivity and specificity of 91.7% and 99.7%, respectively, for Ct59 and 92.4% and 99.5%, respectively, for GC,60 has been criticized for cross-reactivity with nonpathogenic neisseriae strains,61–63 leading to higher false-positive rates than test characteristics would indicate. False-positive results are an issue of particular importance in a low-prevalence setting such as ours. In light of this problem, our outcome classification used the adjusted OD parameters described in the methods (B. van der Pol, personal communication), but some women diagnosed with GC during follow-up may have been misclassified.
Because our main analysis evaluated only MC status of women's primary partner, for women with multiple partners, the observed associations mix the effect of MC status of primary and nonprimary partners. To address this limitation, we included a sensitivity analysis that excluded follow-up time where women reported multiple partnerships; this analysis confirmed a lack of association between MC and GC or Tv. However, in adjusted models, monogamous women with circumcised partners seemed to have a significantly increased risk of incident chlamydial infection compared with women with uncircumcised partners.
This finding disagrees with the only existing study of MC and women's Ct risk (Castellsague et al.6), which found significant protection against Ct seropositivity for women with circumcised partners (OR 0.18, 95% CI 0.05–0.58). However, both our study and that by Castellsague et al. were secondary data analyses using information originally captured to answer a different research question, and there are substantial differences between the 2 analyses that could have led to the contradicting results. These include design (prospective cohort vs. cross-sectional study), population (FP/MCH clinic attendees with a small proportion of higher-risk participants vs. general population and hospital-based controls recruited for a case–control study of cervical cancer in Colombia, Spain, Brazil, Thailand, and the Philippines), total sample size (n = 5925 vs. 300), number of Ct cases (n = 408 vs. 84), and method of outcome detection (PCR vs. microimmunofluorescence detection of Ct antibodies). Of note, when the data from Castellsague et al.6 are analyzed by individual country, the protective association between MC and Ct persists but is no longer statistically significant (Thailand, OR 0.28, 95% CI 0.03–2.99; Philippines, OR 0.21, 95% CI 0.04–1.21; presumably because of small cell sizes, individual ORs not calculated for Colombia, Spain, and Brazil).
MC has the potential to reduce HIV risk among millions of men, and intervention programs are being planned worldwide. The effect of MC on men's STI risk is not yet clear, and further research is warranted to determine whether MC also has direct or indirect effects on women's STI risk.
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