A new report has pointed to a worrying spike in the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis, in adolescent girls in Kenya during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Preliminary post-pandemic data collected in 2020 shows a dramatic increase in infections as compared to 2019.
Investigations in the ongoing study showed a 55 percent increase in bacterial vaginosis (BV) and a 34 percent increase in STIs. While BV is an inflammatory condition caused by an overgrowth of certain bacteria naturally found in the vagina, it does increase the chances of getting an STI.
Bacterial vaginosis can occur in some cases without penetrative sexual activity. Its non-sexual risk factors include intravaginal and vaginal hygiene practices and smoking.
The report also showed substantial co-infection, with 31 percent of girls with BV having an STI, and 35 percent of girls with an STI also having BV.
The recent findings reported in the journal Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology on January 2 lay fault on post-Covid socioeconomic factors, including high Covid-related stress, increased period poverty and sexual activity.
The scientists studying how pandemic-related stressors have influenced sexual behaviour and risk of sexually transmitted infections among girls and young women in Kenya said: “Unsurprisingly, for those reporting, willing and/or forced or tricked sexual activity was more common among girls with detected BV or STI, though 52 percent of girls with BV and 39 percent of girls with STI reported never having had any type of sexual intercourse.”
Of the girls in the study, averaging age 16, nearly one-third or 30.2 percent reported prior sexual intercourse and, of those, 54 percent reported that they had been forced or tricked into having sex.
Among sexually active girls, just 8.5 percent reported using a hormonal contraceptive for family planning.
The original study, which began in April 2018 by co-investigator Penelope Phillips-Howard at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, aimed to understand the impact of menstrual cups and the role of the vaginal microbiome in mitigating rates of bacterial vaginosis and STIs in western Kenya.
Research has shown that it is common for girls to engage in transactional sex to obtain necessities such as sanitary products, soap and underwear, and that young women aged 15-19 carry a disproportionate share of STIs.
A new phase of the study by the University of Illinois Chicago researchers will seek to understand where Covid-19 lockdowns and school closures have significantly affected the community and altered girls’ access to and reliance on exchange sex for necessities, particularly those that may have been otherwise available through schools.
The researchers have been awarded $2.6 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health to do a deep-dive on how pandemic-related stressors influenced sexual behaviour and risk of STIs.