In a new study, scientists have found that microbes present on male genitalia (penis) may have an important role in transmission of bacterial vaginosis (BV) in women. These findings were published today in the journal Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology.
The researchers on the project observed that not only BV-related bacteria were present amongst the microbes of male penises, these bacteria were highly predictive of the possible infection in the female sex partner.
These findings are important as they suggest that in order to treat the condition in women, the male sex partner could be also targeted for treatment.
According to the authors, this means that clinicians and researchers should include male sex partners of women when trying to target this infection in women and their general reproductive health as well. This could help increase the options and opportunity for improved reproductive health, and hopefully reduce stigma from BV.
In the new study, scientists followed 168 Kenyan heterosexual couples over the course of a year. When the study started, no women had history of bacterial vaginosis. But by the end of the study period, 31 percent women had developed the condition.
The researchers observed that though the penile microbes in each man were different, still these microbes were directly associated with later occurrence of bacterial vaginosis in the female partners.
Among all those microbes, the research team identified 10 bacteria from men’s penises that accurately predicted the occurrence of BV in their partners.
They also found that circumcised men had lower presence and abundance of penile anaerobic bacteria, several of which were associated with BV. However, the team realized that circumcision status had low variable importance in the predictions of incident BV in female partners.
This makes sense because the likely mechanism by which circumcision protects against BV is through reduction of the anaerobic bacteria so, the main factor at play here is the presence of penile bacteria that may cause BV in female sexual partners.
The study authors also called for the need of increased awareness of the existence of BV and tests for the condition during gynecological checkups.
The condition affects 20% of all women globally and nearly 21 million women in United States alone, in women between the ages of 15 and 44. In comparison only 4 million women receive treatments which highlights a key gap in healthcare provision to those who are affected.
BV does not have a known cause, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s what makes this new study so interesting. Usually the condition is seen in women with new or multiple sex partners, as well as to women who douche (rinsing or irrigation of vaginal cavity), which can upset the balance of bacteria in the vagina.
Bacterial vaginosis is caused when the normal bacterial microbes in the vagina do not function properly, allowing “bad” bacteria to proliferate. The signs of the condition are similar to yeast infection and include vaginal pain, itching, burning, burning during urination, a thin, gray or white vaginal discharge; and a strong fish-like odor, especially after sex.
Some women do not experience any of these symptoms which can cause this infection to go untreated while it continues to damage the female reproductive tract. The condition is also dangerous for pregnant women who can suffer from premature birth or have a baby who has low birth weight, which is associated with
negative health outcomes for the child.
Bacterial Vaginosis can also increase the women’s chance of contracting sexually transmitted infections like HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea. These diseases can cause serious damage to the female reproductive tract and can trigger pelvic inflammatory disease which leads to infertility.
The condition is often treated with medications like Metronidazole, Clindamycin, and Tinidazole. These medications are taken in form of oral tablet or applied topically on the vagina to treat the infection which is often diagnosed with help of pelvic examination.
However, these drugs have a limited long-term success rate. Up to 50% of women have a recurrence within 6 months of treatment so there is a need for more effective approaches to treatment. One of these approaches now might be treatment of male sexual partner of the women as well.