Traditional vaginal agents: use and association with HIV infection in Malawian women

AIDS. 1995 Mar;9(3):293-7.


Objectives: To assess the prevalence of traditional vaginal agent use in Malawian women and its association with HIV infection.

Methods: Consenting, consecutive antenatal women were administered a questionnaire and screened for sexually transmitted diseases (STD) including HIV.

Results: Of the 6603 consenting women, 886 (13%) reported using intravaginal agents for tightening and 2222 (34%) for self-treatment of vaginal discharge and itching. A higher proportion of HIV-infected than uninfected women (17% versus 14%) reported use of intravaginal agents for treatment (odds ratio, 1.29; 95% confidence interval, 1.05-1.57), but no difference in HIV status was found when these agents were used for tightening. In multivariate analysis, vaginal agent use for treatment was independently associated with HIV seropositivity.

Conclusions: The association of HIV infection with vaginal agents for self-treatment, but not for tightening, suggests that STD may play a role or that vaginal agents are used differently for the two purposes. In addition to a small increased risk of HIV infection associated with vaginal agent use, these agents may interfere with condom effectiveness or acceptability of vaginal microbicides.

PIP: An exploratory study was conducted in Malawi to determine whether a correlation exists between human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and traditional practices involving the intravaginal application of substances such as herbs and pulverized stone. Included in the survey were 6603 consecutive consenting volunteers who presented at the prenatal clinic of an urban hospital from October 1989-October 1990. The median age of study participants was 24 years. Although only 11% reported having had a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the three years preceding the interview, laboratory analysis revealed the presence of such an infection in 46%. HIV infection was found in 1502 (23%). A total of 2953 (45%) of these pregnant women reported use of vaginal agents or vaginal incision, either for the treatment of discharge or itching or for the enhancement of sexual pleasure through vaginal tightening. Concerns have been raised that the placement of desiccants, irritants, and astringents in the vagina can induce certain physiological changes that increase the risk of HIV infection. Demonstrated in this survey was a slight association between HIV seropositivity and the use of vaginal agents for self-medication but not for vaginal tightening. In the univariate analysis, this finding persisted only for pregnant women without past or current STD infection. In the multivariate analysis, users of vaginal agents for treatment had a small increased risk of HIV in addition to--and independently of--the risk conferred by an STD history. It is possible, however, that the use of vaginal agents for self-medication is a marker for the presence of genital tract inflammation--a co-factor for HIV transmission. Given the extent of this traditional practice and its potential risk, more research is urged on the type of vaginal agents used and their effects on vaginal tissue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Intravaginal
  • Adult
  • Antifungal Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antifungal Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Malawi / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Vagina
  • Vaginitis / drug therapy*


  • Antifungal Agents