Israeli AIDS organization launches circumcision effort in Africa

It’s a fact that circumcision reduces the chance of female-to-male HIV infection by up to 75 percent. So with AIDS still devastating Africa, help has arrived from the world’s top circumcision expert: Israel.

During the past year, the nonprofit Jerusalem AIDS Project (JAIP) partnered with Hadassah Medical Organization and the Family Life Association of Swaziland to establish Operation Abraham, a pilot program to promote and perform adult male circumcisions.

Since January, Israeli doctors have been teaching local Swazi medical professionals how to conduct the procedure in a near-assembly line manner. More than 800 Swazi men have now done their part to minimize the risk of infection.

And not a minute too soon. Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rate, estimated at 26 percent of the population.

Israel was the natural place to seek help because of the country’s expertise in performing adult male circumcision – which, interestingly enough, has nothing to do with the nation’s many mohels who perform the rite of brit milah countless times a day.

Inon Schenker is the director of operations for JAIP. In a recent visit to the Bay Area to meet with supporters, he explained the genesis of Israel’s expertise. With hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia immigrating to Israel over the last 30 years, demand for adult male circumcision skyrocketed. The procedure is rarely done in Russia, and was denied to Jews during the Soviet era.

“Three generations were coming and saying ‘achshav,'” says Schenker, using the Hebrew word for now. “Doctors took on 30 to 40 clients a day. Here grew a body of experience, not in cutting a foreskin, but in the assembly line. They were able to get a system working fantastically.”

Because it was mostly adults demanding the procedure, it was not under the purview of Israel’s mohels, who are permitted to do ritual circumcision on babies up to six months of age. This was a medical issue.

Schenker says Uganda, Kenya, Lesotho and South Africa have asked for Operation Abraham to come to their clinics next. Given JAIP’s track record, it’s likely he will oblige them. “This brings Israeli expertise that doesn’t exist anywhere else to support saving of lives in Africa on a large scale,” he adds.

JAIP was founded in 1988 a few years into the AIDS epidemic. At the time, Schenker was earning his master’s in public health. He, like other Israeli health professionals, recognized the potential threat of AIDS, and sought to launch a comprehensive education and prevention program.

“It was a grassroots initiative,” he recalls. “We started working in the Jerusalem schools, developing systematic training of teachers to become AIDS educators. We worked toward HIV/AIDS prevention through communication, education and capacity building.”

In 1989, the government of El Salvador asked JAIP for help replicating the program in that country. Soon, Schenker and his colleagues were training teachers and public health officials throughout Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. As a side benefit, they also spread goodwill between Israel and the world.

“Every Rwandan who graduated our training courses, and the kids who saw the cartoon slides bearing the little flag of Israel, understood who was there to support them,” he says. “There was a personal touch.”

Meanwhile, back in Israel, JAIP and others in Israeli society combating HIV/AIDS can declare near-victory. The infection rate among native-born Israelis is almost at zero, though an average of one new case is still reported every day. That’s why Schenker’s work goes on – in Israel, around the world and especially in Africa.

“It’s a long-term engagement,” he says. “Africa is a must.”

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