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Baby in New York Dies From Herpes After Circumcision; Florida Mohel Responds

A 2-week-old baby in New York has died after being circumcised by a Jewish mohel. The infant reportedly contracted herpes when the mohel put his mouth on the baby's penis to suck away blood, part of a religious ritual called the metzitzah b'peh, which is sometimes a component of a bris. Although the death occurred in September, it was not made public until Saturday, when the New York Daily News published a story.

Avi Billet is South Florida rabbi and mohel who performs the metzitzah b'peh -- but in a way that does not involve direct contact with his mouth.

He was initially skeptical of the Daily News story, believing it served only to reignite fears from 2005, when several babies in the New York area contracted herpes and at least one died. In the wake of those incidents, the New York City Health Department investigated and issued a fact sheet on metzitzeh b'peh.

"There is a safe way to do it with a sterilized tube that is harmless to the baby and still fulfills the Talmudic requirements," Billet told New Times before directing us to his website. There, he quotes the passage in the Talmud that explains how to properly perform a bris. The passage says to "draw out blood," but this phrase has been interpreted differently by various Jews. While Reform Jews and Conservative Jews often skip this step during a bris, Billet says Orthodox Jews usually perform it. Yet even within Orthodox Judiasm, there is a debate on how to go about it. Some mohels -- usually within the Hassidic sect -- will suck the blood away with their mouths. (This is how babies have gotten infected.) Others, like Billet, say it is acceptable to place a sterile glass tube between the mohel's mouth and the baby's penis to avoid direct contact.

"As a Jew, I perform the metzitzeh b'peh," Billet says," but as a normal thinking person of the 21st Century, I don't think it's wise to have the mouth touching an open wound." He has written extensively about how mohels should handle bris ceremonies responsibly.

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It's difficult to gather reliable statistics about how many babies die from circumcisions or complications from the procedure. Tim O'Connor, spokesperson for the Palm Beach County Health Department, says he doesn't think it's possible to track that data because if a baby were to die from a circumcision, "hemorrhage" or "infection" would likely be listed as the cause of death. Jenny Mackie, a spokesperson for Broward General Medical Center, says that the hospital does not keep statistics on circumcision complications and that, anecdotally, maternity nurses she asked could not recall any deaths.

One study estimated that 117 boys die each year in the U.S. from circumcision; one critic of that study, however, says the rate is more like 2.6 deaths in 1.3 million circumcisions.

Some activists who oppose circumcision have dedicated web pages to documenting circumcision-related deaths and exploring related issues. See here and here .

For more about their movement, read last month's feature story.

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