Controversial study links circumcision to autism in boys under 10

Reuters / Ronen Zvulun
Circumcised boys have a much higher chance of developing attention-deficit disorder and autism by age 10, the hotly debated research from Denmark says. But not all experts are comfortable with the “extremely speculative findings.”

The risk is doubled if a boy is circumcised before five, the Statens Serum Institut study also claims. The link, they say, is in the stress caused by the pain of being snipped.

Scientists based their findings on results they received from examining 340,000 boys between 1994 and 2003.

Boys from non-Muslims backgrounds were also more likely to develop attention-deficit-hyperactive-disorder (ADHD).

Explaining the rationale behind the study, Professor Morton Frisch of the Copenhagen-based institute says it was “prompted by the combination of recent animal findings linking a single painful injury to lifelong deficits in stress response and a study showing a strong, positive correlation between a country’s neonatal male circumcision and its prevalence of ASD [autism] in boys.”

This means that the boy’s perception of pain may become skewed for life. This characteristic is often found among children with autism.

Almost 5,000 boys, whose health was tracked specifically for the study, have been diagnosed with autism by age nine.

Frisch added that “today it is considered unacceptable practice to circumcise boys without proper pain relief.”

“But none of the most common interventions used to reduce circumcision pain completely eliminates it and some boys will endure strongly painful circumcisions,” he said.

Reuters/Pierre Marsaut

The professor believes that the findings, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, should prompt other scientists to pick up where Frisch left off in order to stem the “increased risk of serious neurodevelopmental and psychological consequences.”

However, Frisch’s findings have caused mixed feedback. Thus, Professor Jeremy Turk, Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at Southwark Child & Adolescent Mental Health Neurodevelopmental Service, believes the findings to be of interest, but adds that they “need to be considered carefully – one cannot draw very strong conclusions from the data,” according to the Daily Mail.

The weakness of the study, in Turk’s view, is its reliance on correlations between data sets, and therefore is open to more wild implications. “For example, many cases of autism are missed until children are older and as there are relatively few cases of autism this could easily skew the data.”

He also added that taking the factors in the study in sets creates de-facto connections and removes the possibility of ASD and other disorders caused by other variables.

Finally, Turk takes issue with the very notion on which the science is predicated – the childhood physical trauma approach, which he believes to be “highly speculative.”

Others joined in with Turk: Professor David Katz of University College London, chairman of Milah UK, an organization dedicated to the issue of circumcision and its discussion on behalf of the Jewish community, likewise said “the report is far from convincing: correlation does not equal causation.”

AFP Photo/Fayez Nureldine

"There is a long history of attempts to link autistic spectrum disorders to unrelated practices, such as the measles/mumps/rubella association, which proved to be fraudulent,” he also says, as cited by Huffington Post.

He goes on to say that there are various abnormalities in the brains of people suffering from ASD that warrant closer examination. Especially, he says that “there is a strong genetic component, which may be a factor within the faith communities studied here, and which does not appear to have been explored amongst them.”

This is also a problem, according to Katz, in that even when modern studies do account for genetic impairments, they may miss out on other, external factors, like the environment, and how it changes over time, presenting new toxins into the air, which in turn affect health.

Getting back to what Turk was saying, Katz’s argument is similar – when taken in sets, data might ignore what causes what, as well as the influence of variables not previously considered within the framework.

READ MORE: Benefits of male circumcision outweigh risks, CDC says

On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control in early December pointed to findings in favor of circumcision, whose benefits they say outweigh the risks.

Their science was based on a five-year study of sub-Saharan Africa, whose subjects were found to have an added layer of protection from HIV, as well as the human papilloma virus (HPV) and a host of urinary tract infections, when circumcised.

Although the draft paper notes that social, cultural, ethical and religious factors play a part in deciding whether or not an infant male should have their foreskin removed, CDC officials now believe that doing such can decrease the risk of contracting HIV by 60 percent over time, and reduces the odds of testing positive for certain cancers by a third.

The debate rages on everywhere, with political and religious factors all playing a role. Israel has called the EU racist for attacking the practice medically, while places like Norway may ban non-medical circumcision altogether.