Study examines STDs among women-to-women sex partners

October 19, 1999

Researchers at the University of Washington have begun the first extensive study of lesbian and bisexual women and sexually transmitted diseases.

The Lesbian/Bisexual Women's Health Study at the University of Washington is revealing some of its tentative findings on a new Web site, Researchers are doing so in hopes of attracting more volunteers in this study of a much-misunderstood subject, the sexual health of bisexual and lesbian women. This is the first study of its kind funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health.

The study needs several hundred more volunteers. Recruiters are seeking women research subjects who are 16 years or older and who have had sex with other women within the last year. Participants in the study receive a comprehensive gynecological exam and full STD screenings at no cost. The study is based at the Broadway Clinic, in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood. For more information, call 206-720-4340.

The Web site contains health information relevant to lesbian and bisexual women, information about specific STDs and vaginal conditions, findings so far from the study, and recommendations for "safe sex."

The findings so far among volunteer subjects are providing insights into women's health, says Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, an assistant professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine.

For example, contrary to some beliefs, women who have sex with other women should get regular Pap smears. Even some health providers seem unaware of this, Marrazzo says. "There's a general assumption that sex between women is not as risky as sex between women and men," Marrazzo says. "Some people do believe that they are not at risk for STDs."

Marrazzo and nurse practitioner Kathleen Stine began the Lesbian/Bisexual Women's Health Study after noticing a number of women in their mid-30s who had abnormal Pap smears. These findings helped to secure the first such funding from NIAID to further investigate the true prevalence of various STDs among women who have sex with women, and the routes of transmission.

The study so far has determined that women who have sex with other women are at risk of spreading HPV, the human papillomavirus. It can cause genital warts, cervical dysplasia and, rarely, cervical cancer. Some of the women with the worst pre-cancerous lesions were women who'd never had sex with men, Marrazzo says.

"The bottom line is that no matter what your sexual history is, you need to get a Pap smear," Marrazzo says.

The study has also found that women having sex with other women have a high prevalence of bacterial vaginosis, or BV, for reasons the study is trying to clarify. BV is a common cause of vaginitis and abnormal vaginal discharge. It may also be to blame for one out of five cases of preterm labor or babies born with low birth weights. BV appears to occur more often among lesbian women than among all women as a group.

The study is also examining the possible transmission of other STDs, including herpes, chlamydia and gonorrhea.

University of Washington

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