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McMaster Researchers Find Association between High-Risk Sexual Behaviour and Women’s Reproductive Health

Author: Christy Groves

Dr. Charu Kaushic and Dr. Jocelyn Wessels at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR), McMaster University.

November 2nd, 2017 – In a new publication, Dr. Charu Kaushic and colleagues at McMaster University have found a potential biological link between high-risk sexual behaviors like sex work, and increased risk of acquiring human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

In collaboration with the University of Manitoba and the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Africa, Dr. Kaushic’s team compared the vaginal microbiota (bacterial communities) of women who were engaged in sex work with women who were not sex workers but lived within the same community in Nairobi, Kenya. Through the application of DNA extraction and 16SRNA gene sequencing studies of bacterial species found in cervicovaginal lavage samples, the team found that women involved in high-risk sexual behavior (sex work) had greater bacterial richness and diversity, and a lower abundance of the protective type of bacteria, Lactobacillus, than the women who were not sex workers.

While many factors such as ethnicity, diet, and cultural background affect the vaginal microbiota, low diversity vaginal microbiota, predominated by Lactobacillus species, is associated with less risk of vaginal infections. Diverse vaginal microbiota, low in Lactobacillus species, is associated with an increased prevalence of STIs and HIV-1 acquisition. The tendency for sex workers to have a more diverse vaginal bacterial microbiota might put them at an increased risk for STIs, and be a biological reason why they are more susceptible to STIs.

Dr. Kaushic’s research, supported by a Team Grant on Mucosal Immunology for HIV Vaccine Development from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), CIHR Operating Grants, and from Ontario HIV Treatment Network, is focused on better understanding correlations between sexual behavior, mucosal immunity in the genital tract, and sexually transmitted pathogens.

“Studies like ours are vital to the discovery and development of new and innovative prevention strategies against sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV-1”, states Dr. Jocelyn Wessels, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Kaushic’s lab and lead author of the publication. This type of work is significant, as AIDS-related illnesses have resulted in an estimated 35 million deaths since the start of the epidemic, including 1.1 million in 2015.

Correspondence and request for materials should be addressed to Dr. Charu Kaushic (email:, associate professor at McMaster University’s Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine and recent recipient of an Applied HIV Research Chair Award from the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN). Visit her lab’s website at

 To read the full publication, visit the PLOS publication link here.


Christy Groves