New York City health officials are pushing a proposed regulation that would require parents to sign a consent waiver before they take part in a circumcision ritual called "metzitzah b'peh," typically practiced by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ritual potentially poses a fatal risk to newborns, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Jews regularly practice circumcision as part of their religion, but mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews practice metzitzah b'peh, during which the mohel, or person performing the procedure, orally sucks the blood from the infant's newly circumcised penis.
The numbers reported came to light as the city's health department launched an investigation after the infant deaths were reported in New York, the most recent in September in Brooklyn.
The health department reported last month that an estimated 20,493 infants in New York City were exposed to direct oral suction. Baby boys who were reportedly circumcised "with confirmed or probable orogenital suction" between April 2006 and December 2011 had an estimated risk of contracting neonatal herpes (HSV-1) infection of 24.4 per 100,000 cases, making the risk 3.4 times greater than those infants who did not have direct oral suction, according to the health department findings.
In a statement advising New York parents to refrain from direct oral-genital suction during circumcision, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said, "There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn.
"Parents considering ritual circumcision need to know that circumcision should only be performed under sterile conditions, like any other procedures that create open cuts, whether by mohelim or medical professionals."
Reports of infant herpes infections and deaths are not new.
In November of 2004, the Department of Health reported that twin male infants contracted neonatal herpes after the ritual circumcision, one of whom died.
Spokesman Jerry Schmetter of the Brooklyn Defense Attorney's office said a criminal investigation regarding a rabbi who was linked to infant herpes cases, was "still ongoing."
In the case of the Brooklyn infant's death in September, the parents of the baby refused to tell authorities who performed the ritual.
The United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg in Brooklyn could not be reached for comment.
Jeffrey Mazlin, a certified mohel and physician in New York who regularly practices circumcision procedures, said "only the more orthodox, the more traditional mohels" perform the metzitzah b'peh.
"[Orthodox Jews] look at it in terms of religion being more important than the individual, whereas someone who is more liberal will make sure that the individual's rights are taken care of," he said.
But the ritual is not just an upholding of a Jewish tradition, but also a firm reminder of their beliefs.
"Because blood is the life-giving element, they believe that it's supposed to be part of the whole procedure," Mazlin said.
The little blood that is drawn from the newly circumcised penis is usually left alone or wiped away under regular procedures, he said.
"There are no known medical benefits to sucking [the blood]." he said.