NYC seeks to stop mohel-to-infant herpes cases

By Matthew Chayes (NY Newsday)
March 29, 2017

New York City has begun barring mohels who test positive for herpes and who may have passed the virus to an infant from sucking the blood from a circumcision wound in a controversial procedure practiced by some ultra-Orthodox Jews, the city’s health department said this week.

But the legal bar appears to lack an outside enforcement mechanism. Jewish parents who wish to circumcise their infant boys still should ask a prospective mohel if he has herpes before allowing him to engage in the practice, known as metzitzah b’peh, Mayor Bill de Blasio said. And the names of the mohels known to have herpes won’t be publicized due to confidentiality rules, the mayor said.

“Ask the mohel if they are infected with herpes, and if they are, you should find a different mohel,” de Blasio said at an unrelated news conference Wednesday.

The move comes after six recent cases of neonatal herpes occurred in the city that are suspected of being transmitted by mohels. A herpes infection in an infant can be especially dangerous or even deadly.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization that’s defended the practice on the grounds that it is protected by the First Amendment, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday.

Agudath and other groups have disputed that the practice causes herpes transmission. But Dr. Mary Bassett, the city’s health commissioner, told Newsday earlier this month that it’s “incontrovertible” that the practice is associated with transmitting herpes to infants.

The majority of Jews who circumcise infants do not use mohels who engage in metzitzah b’peh. A central Jewish text dating to the 4th century warns that failure to perform the suction is dangerous.

How to prevent mohel-to-infant herpes has been a thorny question for New York City mayors. Michael Bloomberg caused an uproar in 2012 when he required that mohels obtain written consent to practice metzitzah b’peh.

De Blasio repealed that policy, in a deal with representatives of Jews who practice the ritual, about two years ago in favor of a voluntary blacklist when a mohel’s strand of herpes is linked to a neonatal case.

Oral herpes can be transmitted to genitals, and herpes can still be transmitted regardless of whether a person is showing symptoms. About 70 percent of people under 50 worldwide have the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

De Blasio conceded on Wednesday that the deal his administration struck in 2015 did not work.

“I’m not happy about the outcome,” he said. “We tried a new policy. It didn’t work either, which I’m very unhappy about.”