Purpose of review
There are an estimated 374 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) worldwide every year. Our review article examines the current evidence of how STI acquisition, transmission, and pathogenesis is impacted upon by the genital microbiota, with a focus on epidemiological, biochemical, and immunological features.
At least in women, a genital microbiota dominated by lactobacilli has long been considered optimal for reproductive health, while depletion of lactobacilli may lead to a genital microenvironment dominated by anaerobic pathogens, which can manifest clinically as bacterial vaginosis. Recent research efforts have characterized genital microbiota composition in greater resolution, sometimes at species-level, using proteomics, metabolomics, and deep sequencing. This has enhanced our understanding of how specific microbiota members influence acquisition or clinical manifestation of STI pathogen infection. Other advances include a steady, though still slow, increase in the number of studies that sought to determine the genital (penile or urethral) microbiota of males and how it may impact that of their female partners’ genital microbiota and risk of STI acquisition. Altogether, these data enabled us to explore the concept that genital microbiota may be sexually transmitted and influence pathogenesis and clinical presentation of other STI.
With STI infection rates increasing worldwide, it is important now more than ever to find novel STI prevention strategies. Understanding if and how the genital microbiota is a modifiable risk factor for STI transmission, acquisition, and clinical manifestation may prove to be an important strategy in our efforts to curb morbidity in at risk populations.