Agnes Binagwaho and colleagues predict that circumcision of newborn boys would be effective and cost-saving as a long-term strategy to prevent HIV in Rwanda.
There is strong evidence showing that male circumcision (MC) reduces HIV infection and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In Rwanda, where adult HIV prevalence is 3%, MC is not a traditional practice. The Rwanda National AIDS Commission modelled cost and effects of MC at different ages to inform policy and programmatic decisions in relation to introducing MC. This study was necessary because the MC debate in Southern Africa has focused primarily on MC for adults. Further, this is the first time, to our knowledge, that a cost-effectiveness study on MC has been carried out in a country where HIV prevalence is below 5%.
Methods and Findings
A cost-effectiveness model was developed and applied to three hypothetical cohorts in Rwanda: newborns, adolescents, and adult men. Effectiveness was defined as the number of HIV infections averted, and was calculated as the product of the number of people susceptible to HIV infection in the cohort, the HIV incidence rate at different ages, and the protective effect of MC; discounted back to the year of circumcision and summed over the life expectancy of the circumcised person. Direct costs were based on interviews with experienced health care providers to determine inputs involved in the procedure (from consumables to staff time) and related prices. Other costs included training, patient counselling, treatment of adverse events, and promotion campaigns, and they were adjusted for the averted lifetime cost of health care (antiretroviral therapy [ART], opportunistic infection [OI], laboratory tests). One-way sensitivity analysis was performed by varying the main inputs of the model, and thresholds were calculated at which each intervention is no longer cost-saving and at which an intervention costs more than one gross domestic product (GDP) per capita per life-year gained. Results: Neonatal MC is less expensive than adolescent and adult MC (US$15 instead of US$59 per procedure) and is cost-saving (the cost-effectiveness ratio is negative), even though savings from infant circumcision will be realized later in time. The cost per infection averted is US$3,932 for adolescent MC and US$4,949 for adult MC. Results for infant MC appear robust. Infant MC remains highly cost-effective across a reasonable range of variation in the base case scenario. Adolescent MC is highly cost-effective for the base case scenario but this high cost-effectiveness is not robust to small changes in the input variables. Adult MC is neither cost-saving nor highly cost-effective when considering only the direct benefit for the circumcised man.
The study suggests that Rwanda should be simultaneously scaling up circumcision across a broad range of age groups, with high priority to the very young. Infant MC can be integrated into existing health services (i.e., neonatal visits and vaccination sessions) and over time has better potential than adolescent and adult circumcision to achieve the very high coverage of the population required for maximal reduction of HIV incidence. In the presence of infant MC, adolescent and adult MC would evolve into a “catch-up” campaign that would be needed at the start of the program but would eventually become superfluous.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) has killed more than 25 million people since 1981 and more than 31 million people (22 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone) are now infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS and no vaccine against HIV infection. Consequently, prevention of HIV transmission is extremely important. HIV is most often spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner. Individuals can reduce their risk of HIV infection, therefore, by abstaining from sex, by having one or a few sexual partners, and by always using a male or female condom. In addition, male circumcision—the removal of the foreskin, the loose fold of skin that covers the head of penis—can halve HIV transmission rates to men resulting from sex with women. Thus, as part of its HIV prevention strategy, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that male circumcision programs be scaled up in countries where there is a generalized HIV epidemic and where few men are circumcised.
Why Was This Study Done?
One such country is Rwanda. Here, 3% of the adult population is infected with HIV but only 15% of men are circumcised—worldwide, about 30% of men are circumcised. Demand for circumcision is increasing in Rwanda but, before policy makers introduce a country-wide male circumcision program, they need to identify the most cost-effective way to increase circumcision rates. In particular, they need to decide the age at which circumcision should be offered. Circumcision soon after birth (neonatal circumcision) is quick and simple and rarely causes any complications. Circumcision of adolescents and adults is more complex and has a higher complication rate. Although several studies have investigated the cost-effectiveness (the balance between the clinical and financial costs of a medical intervention and its benefits) of circumcision in adult men, little is known about its cost-effectiveness in newborn boys. In this study, which is one of several studies on male circumcision being organized by the National AIDS Control Commission in Rwanda, the researchers model the cost-effectiveness of circumcision at different ages.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers developed a simple cost-effectiveness model and applied it to three hypothetical groups of Rwandans: newborn boys, adolescent boys, and adult men. For their model, the researchers calculated the effectiveness of male circumcision (the number of HIV infections averted) by estimating the reduction in the annual number of new HIV infections over time. They obtained estimates of the costs of circumcision (including the costs of consumables, staff time, and treatment of complications) from health care providers and adjusted these costs for the money saved through not needing to treat HIV in males in whom circumcision prevented infection. Using their model, the researchers estimate that each neonatal male circumcision would cost US$15 whereas each adolescent or adult male circumcision would cost US$59. Neonatal male circumcision, they report, would be cost-saving. That is, over a lifetime, neonatal male circumcision would save more money than it costs. Finally, using the WHO definition of cost-effectiveness (for a cost-effective intervention, the additional cost incurred to gain one year of life must be less than a country's per capita gross domestic product), the researchers estimate that, although adolescent circumcision would be highly cost-effective, circumcision of adult men would only be potentially cost-effective (but would likely prove cost-effective if the additional infections that would occur from men to their partners without a circumcision program were also taken into account).
What Do These Findings Mean?
As with all modeling studies, the accuracy of these findings depends on the many assumptions included in the model. However, the findings suggest that male circumcision for infants for the prevention of HIV infection later in life is highly cost-effective and likely to be cost-saving and that circumcision for adolescents is cost-effective. The researchers suggest, therefore, that policy makers in Rwanda and in countries with similar HIV infection and circumcision rates should scale up male circumcision programs across all age groups, with high priority being given to the very young. If infants are routinely circumcised, they suggest, circumcision of adolescent and adult males would become a “catch-up” campaign that would be needed at the start of the program but that would become superfluous over time. Such an approach would represent a switch from managing the HIV epidemic as an emergency towards focusing on sustainable, long-term solutions to this major public-health problem.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000211.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Seth Kalichman
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
Information is available from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) on HIV infection and AIDS and on male circumcision in relation to HIV and AIDS
HIV InSite has comprehensive information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV and AIDS in Africa, and on circumcision and HIV (some information in English and Spanish)
More information about male circumcision is available from the Clearinghouse on Male Circumcision
The National AIDS Control Commission of Rwanda provides detailed information about HIV/AIDS in Rwanda (in English and French)