Three circumcised babies with herpes spark NY health probe
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and municipal health officials met recently with local ultra-Orthodox leaders to discuss banning mohelim (ritual circumcisers) from performing the Talmudic custom known as metzitzah b'peh (oral suction), in which blood is drawn from the circumcision wound to cleanse it. The New York Times reported on August 26 that this practice became a health issue after three infants circumcised by the same mohel were infected with the herpes virus. One of the babies subsequently died.
Health officials in New York suspect that oral suction exposes the infants to Type-1 herpes, which is common in adults but can be fatal to infants.
A baby from Staten Island and twins from the Hasidic community of Monsey contracted the disease; one of the twins died in February.
The Rabbinical Council of America, the main umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis, called for an end to the practice, but at the meeting with Bloomberg on August 11, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders rejected a ban outright.
"The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years. We do not change. And we will not change," said Rabbi David Niederman of the Haredi community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Bloomberg said on his radio program the next day that health officials would investigate the connection between the practice and herpes transmission.
"We're going to do a study, and make sure that everybody is safe. And at the same time, it is not the government's business to tell people how to practice their religion," the mayor said.
New York's public health supervisor, Thomas Frieden, said that a low rate of contracting herpes through oral suction was "somewhat inevitable." However, he stressed that there is no intention of outlawing the ritual, since it is impossible to enforce it in circumcision ceremonies, many of which take place in private homes.
The scientific journal Pediatrics last year published the results of a study by a group of American and Israeli researchers, headed by Dr. Benjamin Gezundheit, a pediatric specialist from Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva. The researchers examined eight cases of infants who contracted herpes and had been circumcised using the traditional oral suction practice. They concluded that the practice causes "serious risk" of transmitting herpes and also exposes the baby to various infections.
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