Researchers to study whether menstrual cups can help prevent vaginal infections

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago will conduct a study to determine how the use of menstrual cups helps prevent vaginal infections and sexually transmitted infections.

"One of the most common vaginal infections, bacterial vaginosis, doubles the risk for acquiring or transmitting HIV," said Supriya Mehta, associate professor of epidemiology in the UIC School of Public Health and principal investigator on the study. "If we can better understand how using the menstrual cup reduces the risk for bacterial vaginosis, we can also start building a stronger case for cup use to reduce HIV as well."

Mehta and her colleagues have received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate whether the use of menstrual cups among girls in Kenya changes the vaginal microbiome and if this is a factor in reducing the rate of sexually transmitted and vaginal infections. They will also look at how the vaginal microbiome changes as girls become sexually active and whether these changes are modified by the use of menstrual cups. The project is part of a larger study that seeks to determine whether menstrual cups can improve school attendance and reduce HIV and herpes simplex virus-2 among more than 4,000 girls. The larger research is being led by Penelope Phillips-Howard of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.

In a previous randomized study involving girls between the ages of 14 and 16 in Kenya, researchers compared girls who received only menstrual hygiene counseling with girls who were provided the menstrual cups. After one year, the girls using the menstrual cups showed a 35 percent reduced prevalence of bacterial vaginosis, a very common bacterial infection, and a 52 percent reduction in sexually transmitted infections.

For many young women living in Kenya, lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, including pads and tampons, can prevent them from attending school. Some girls and women engage in risky or coercive sex in order to obtain these products and are subsequently at an increased risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections.

While menstrual cups have been around for decades, they have recently gained popularity in the developed world as an alternative to pads and tampons, which contribute to waste in landfills. Made of high-grade silicone, the flexible cup is worn internally in the vaginal canal, where it collects menstrual flow. The contents can be discarded, and the cup can be washed and reused.

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