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Baby Dies of Herpes in Ritual Circumcision by Orthodox Jews

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GETTY H 031212 Circumcision?  SQUARESPACE CACHEVERSION=1331552976702iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — New York City is investigating the death last September of a baby who contracted herpes after a “ritual circumcision with oral suction” in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish ceremony known in Hebrew as metzitzah b’peh.

In a practice that takes place during a ceremony known as the bris, a circumcision practitioner, or mohel, removes the foreskin from a baby’s penis, and with his mouth sucks the blood from the incision to cleanse the wound.

The district attorney’s office in Kings County Brooklyn, which is investigating the death of the 2-week-old baby at Maimonides Hospital, would not disclose the name of the mohel or whether there would be prosecuted.

“We are looking into it, that’s all I can say,” a D.A. source told ABC News.

The 5,000-year-old religious practice is seen primarily in ultra-Orthodox and some orthodox communities, and has caused alarm among city health officials.  In 2003 and 2004, three babies, including a set of twins, were infected with Type 1 herpes.  The cases were linked to circumcision, and one boy died.

The mohel who performed the procedures, Yitzchok Fischer, was later banned from doing circumcisions, according to The New York Times.  It is not known if he was involved in this recent death.

“It’s certainly not something any of us recommend in the modern infection-control era,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University.

“This is a ritual of historic Abraham that’s come down through the ages, and now it has met modern science,” he said.  “It was never a good idea, and there is a better way to do this.”  (The modern Jewish community uses a sterile aspiration device to clean the wound in a circumcision.)

In the 2004 death and the most recent one, a mohel infected the penile wounds with Type 1 herpes I (HSV-1), which affects the mouth and throat.  It is different from Type 2 or genital herpes (HSV-2), which is a sexually transmitted disease and can cause deadly infections when a newborn passes through an infected birth canal.

Neonatal herpes is “almost always” a fatal infection, according to Schaffner.  “It’s a bad virus.  [Infants] have no immunity and so it’s a very serious illness.  Now we have another death — an unnecessary, incredibly tragic death.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio