Skip to content

Boston/Botswana circumcision trial

March 30, 2013

Two/three arm? 300/1250 participants?

This randomised trial of different methods of neonatal male circumcision in Botswana (click here, or Plank Botswana circ trial), has just been published online in J Acquir Immuno Defic Syndrome. The paper version will appear on April 15th.

The trial was led by US researchers, sponsored by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston Massachusetts, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and funded by a grant from the United States National Institutes of Health. This is non-therapeutic research on a vulnerable group – participants were healthy newborn boys born in three government hospitals in Botswana. You’d expect such an ethically sensitive trial, performed by researchers from some of the world’s leading academic institutions, to be done correctly.

First inspection looks promising. The trial was registered in Sept 3rd 2009. This is four months after it started, which is not ideal, but over a year before it ended, which should be early enough to prevent the researchers altering the sample size or primary endpoint to get the result they want. Unfortunately there are serious inconsistencies between registration and publication.  I’ll describe two, the sample size and design, and the primary endpoint.

Sample size and design

The published paper describes a two-arm randomised trial including 300 infants, comparing the Mogen clamp method (n=153) with the Plastibell device (n=147). There is no mention of any alteration in design or sample size.

However the trial registration on (here) describes a three arm trial with the AccuCirc device added as a third arm, making a total sample size of 450! Various older versions of the trial registration give a “total anticipated enrolment” of either 1000 or 1250. On the latest version “anticipated enrolment” of 1250 has been altered to “achieved enrolment” of 1020.

What is going on?  It’s bad enough to alter your sample size between registration and publication without giving a reason. To change a three-arm trial into two-arms makes a mockery of trial registration. Was the registration wrong, or are the authors failing to report the third AccuCirc arm?

Primary outcome

In the paper the primary outcome is ambiguous – undefined in the abstract, and defined only as “adverse events and parental satisfaction” in the methods/outcomes section. The statistical analysis section states “this study was designed to detect a 20% difference in parental satisfaction between the 2 techniques”.  

In the trial registration document the primary outcome is clear. In all versions it is “bleeding within six weeks”.

This is not reported as such in the paper, but since most bleeding occurs  early, the outcome “bleeding”[with no time period given] is probably the same.  Five cases occurred in the Mogen group and zero in the Plastibell.  The authors did a chi-square test and estimated P=0.03. i.e. nominally a positive result. This finding makes it into the abstract.

Unfortunately, there are other statistical problems. In the statistical methods section of the paper the authors said they would use Fisher’s exact test for dichotomous outcomes, which is indeed preferable, and when I redid the test that way, the P value for “bleeding” became 0.06 i.e. not quite statistically significant. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because the abstract conclusion is the opposite of the bleeding data – Mogen is said to be safer because there were two cases of migration of the Plastibell.

The details of the satisfaction questionnaire are not described. and the results are presented only as summary percentages “highly or completely satisfied” at 6 weeks (95% Mogen, 96% Plastibell; P = 0.5) and at 4 months (95% Mogen, 99% Plastibell; P = 0.04).  Despite this nominal statistical significance at four months, and the earlier statement in the paper that maternal satisfaction was a primary outcome, the authors made nothing of this and did not even mention it in the abstract.

I could go on. Read the paper. For now a letter to the editor of J Acquir Immuno Defic Syndrome may bring clarification. I will report back.

But this is non-therapeutic research in newborn children who cannot consent. It is the sort of research that should be only done to the highest possible standards and monitored ethically more closely than any other.  Tomorrow (click here) I’ll take a closer look at the complications these babies suffered, and the trial’s ethical monitoring.

Jim Thornton

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2013 9:34 am

    And the Mogen clamp is no longer made in the USA because the Mogen company went out of business in 2010, after losing at least $18 million to the families of boys who lost part of the heads of their penises in Mogen clamps.

  2. Petite Poulet permalink
    April 18, 2013 4:26 am

    Such sloppy planning is par for the course for circumcision studies. Where is the control group that didn’t get circumcised? Circumcision studies that looked at the effectiveness of topical and local anesthetics routinely ignored the ethical considerations required by the Helsinki Declaration and managed to get published in high ranking journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine. Wawer’s study, perhaps the most unethical study of the past 20 years, randomized HIV-infected men to early or late circumcision but did not inform the men or their partners of their HIV status then waited to see how long it took before the female partners became infected. This “study” was published in The Lancet. So when it comes to circumcision, the rules of ethics don’t apply.

    • April 21, 2013 10:34 pm

      And the Wawer study was cut short “for futility” when it failed to find that circumcision protected the women from HIV, but before it could find whether circumcision increased the HIV risk to them:

      The trial was stopped early because of futility. 92 couples in the intervention group and 67 couples in the control group were included in the modified ITT analysis. 17 (18%) women in the intervention group and eight (12%) women in the control group acquired HIV during follow-up (p=0·36). Cumulative probabilities of female HIV infection at 24 months were 21·7% (95% CI 12·7-33·4) in the intervention group and 13·4% (6·7-25·8) in the control group (adjusted hazard ratio 1·49, 95% CI 0·62-3·57; p=0·368).

      Circumcision of HIV-infected men did not reduce HIV transmission to female partners over 24 months; longer-term effects could not be assessed. Condom use after male circumcision is essential for HIV prevention. “

    • September 20, 2013 6:22 pm

      Petit Poulet. I must correct your claim that them men were not informed of their HIV status.

      “Trial procedures […] are briefly summarized here. Men received an explanation of study goals and provided written informed consent for screening and HIV testing. Prior to screening and throughout the trial, men were offered HIV results, counseling and information on HIV prevention. They were informed that the effects of MC on HIV/STI transmission to women partners were unknown and that adherence to safe sexual practices was imperative.”

  3. April 22, 2013 7:25 am

    Interesting. Stopping for futility is sensible for a treatment which you won’t now implement, because there’s no need to prove lack of harm. But to stop early when the trend is harmful and then implement! Ye Gods!

  4. January 13, 2023 3:32 pm

    Very nice blog you havve here


  1. Boston/Botswana circumcision trial – 2 |
  2. Boston/Botswana circ. trial update |
  3. More Boston/Botswana circumcising |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: