New York City’s Health Commissioner Thomas Farley strongly discouraged the continuing performance, by mouth, of metzitzah, or the drawing of blood, on newborn Jewish males last Thursday (June 7), saying he had successfully reached agreements with local New York hospitals to distribute brochures informing parents—especially those of Chareidi, or an ultra-Orthodox Jewish orientation—on the dangers of subjecting their newborns to the ritual.
“There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn,” the Health Commissioner declared, according to JTA. “Parents considering ritual Jewish 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.”
Investigations by health professionals in recent years have uncovered several instances where a mohel passed on the herpes virus to an infant after performing metzitzah on him.
According to JTA, an unidentified infant died on September 28 at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center from “disseminated herpes simplex virus Type 1, complicating ritual circumcision with oral suction,” the child’s death certificate reads.
The Health Department has found a total of 11 cases between 2000 and 2011 of infants who contracted herpes post-circumcision; among these, 10 were hospitalized, at least 2 developed brain damage, and 2 died, the Health Department noted in a statement.
Metzitzah b’peh is the process of sucking the blood from the circumcision wound after it is made. The point of contact between mohel and infant was the site of the transmission of the herpes virus between the mohel and the infant in the cases where the metzitzah proved fatal.
Because herpes simplex virus type 1 is prevalent among the general population, most mothers end up passing immunity to the virus on to their offspring. But not all children are protected. When a baby is born to parents with no history of the virus, and the attending mohel is unaware of his possession of the virus, the bris milah (circumcision) can quickly turn tragic.
The herpes type 1 strain can be passed on “orally through common activities,” the Health Department explained in a statement.
Now being distributed in multiple hospitals, Commissioner Farley’s initiative, the brochure “Before the Bris,” warns parents of the risks of oral-genital suction to their newborns, and advises them to consult with a prospective mohel before hiring him to make sure he doesn’t perform metzitzah.
Alternatives to the controversial ritual have been proposed recently to meet the growing concerns of parents and local officials. Mohels now use gauze or a glass tube in metzitzah b’peh’s stead, as either option is believed to satisfy the apparent medical advice given in the Talmud on the subject. But there are still Chareidim, and others, who continue to perform metzitzah as originally prescribed by the sages—with their mouths.