updated 4/5/2007 12:09:52 PM ET 2007-04-05T16:09:52

City health officials are considering a program to urge circumcision for men at high risk of AIDS, noting studies that the procedure can reduce the chances of getting the disease.

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The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has sought feedback from gay rights groups and community organizations, and it approached the agency that runs city hospitals and health clinics about possibly offering the procedure for free to men without health insurance, The New York Times reported in Thursday editions.

Health department spokeswoman Sara Markt confirmed Thursday that the agency was in discussions “with the community about the possibility of increasing access to the service and educating the public about the risks and benefits of circumcision.”

U.N. health agencies last week recommended circumcision for heterosexual men after three studies in Africa found that the procedure reduced men’s chances of contracting HIV by up to 60 percent.

Calling New York City “the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic” in the United States, Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden suggested circumcision could hold preventative promise here, despite differences between the two at-risk populations.

The studies conducted in Uganda, Kenya and South Africa involved men who said they had sex with women. In New York, those at highest risk are men who have sex with men, men who inject drugs and their sexual partners, according to The Times.

About 65 percent of all male babies in the United States are circumcised, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Worldwide, about 30 percent of men are, the World Health Organization estimates.

In New York, black, Hispanic and foreign-born men are less likely to be circumcised than white Americans, Frieden said.

Local AIDS activists had mixed feelings about the circumcision idea. Some doubted that encouraging circumcisions would significantly decrease infection rates, while others suggested the issue needs a study specific to New York.

“Should we proceed when we don’t have hard data yet on the population here?” asked Peter Staley, a longtime AIDS activist and co-founder of ACT-UP New York. “On the other hand, if we wait the three years it would take to answer that question, how many will be infected in the meantime?”

The local hospital agency, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, has not reached a decision on offering free procedures, a spokeswoman said.

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