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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

The epidemiology of bacterial vaginosis in relation to sexual behaviour

Hans Verstraelen1*, Rita Verhelst2, Mario Vaneechoutte1 and Marleen Temmerman2

Author affiliations

1 Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

2 Laboratory Bacteriology Research, Department of Clinical Chemistry, Microbiology, and Immunology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

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Citation and License

BMC Infectious Diseases 2010, 10:81  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-10-81

Published: 30 March 2010

Abstract

Background

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) has been most consistently linked to sexual behaviour, and the epidemiological profile of BV mirrors that of established sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It remains a matter of debate however whether BV pathogenesis does actually involve sexual transmission of pathogenic micro-organisms from men to women. We therefore made a critical appraisal of the literature on BV in relation to sexual behaviour.

Discussion

G. vaginalis carriage and BV occurs rarely with children, but has been observed among adolescent, even sexually non-experienced girls, contradicting that sexual transmission is a necessary prerequisite to disease acquisition. G. vaginalis carriage is enhanced by penetrative sexual contact but also by non-penetrative digito-genital contact and oral sex, again indicating that sex per se, but not necessarily coital transmission is involved. Several observations also point at female-to-male rather than at male-to-female transmission of G. vaginalis, presumably explaining the high concordance rates of G. vaginalis carriage among couples. Male antibiotic treatment has not been found to protect against BV, condom use is slightly protective, whereas male circumcision might protect against BV. BV is also common among women-who-have-sex-with-women and this relates at least in part to non-coital sexual behaviours. Though male-to-female transmission cannot be ruled out, overall there is little evidence that BV acts as an STD. Rather, we suggest BV may be considered a sexually enhanced disease (SED), with frequency of intercourse being a critical factor. This may relate to two distinct pathogenetic mechanisms: (1) in case of unprotected intercourse alkalinisation of the vaginal niche enhances a shift from lactobacilli-dominated microflora to a BV-like type of microflora and (2) in case of unprotected and protected intercourse mechanical transfer of perineal enteric bacteria is enhanced by coitus. A similar mechanism of mechanical transfer may explain the consistent link between non-coital sexual acts and BV. Similar observations supporting the SED pathogenetic model have been made for vaginal candidiasis and for urinary tract infection.

Summary

Though male-to-female transmission cannot be ruled out, overall there is incomplete evidence that BV acts as an STI. We believe however that BV may be considered a sexually enhanced disease, with frequency of intercourse being a critical factor.