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[LUSAKA] Women who wash inside their vagina are 3-4 times more likely to become infected with HIV than those who do not, according to a ten-year study in Kenya published this month in the journal AIDS.

The practice is common among women throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

It has long been thought the practice would increase women’s susceptibility to HIV by stripping away the vagina’s natural protection against infection and making it easier for the virus to enter cells.

Now, a study by researchers from the University of Washington International Aids Research and Training Program in Seattle, United States, says washing with water or soap and water significantly increases the risk of infection.

The study, led by Scott McClelland, involved more than 1,270 Kenyan women.

At the start, 71 of them said they never washed internally, while 293 said they washed using water and 906 said they used soap as well.

The researchers then did monthly follow-ups to test for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

"Those who reported they washed inside the vagina with water were three times more likely to be infected with HIV [than those who did not wash]," says McClelland. "Women who reported that they washed with soap were four times more likely to be infected with HIV.”

"The findings fit with current scientific understanding of the potential mechanisms of HIV transmission," says Robin Shattock, professor of molecular infection at St George’s Medical School in London, United Kingdom.

"Water and the process of washing may damage the vaginal lining, providing an entry point for the virus. The use of soap would exacerbate [the damage]."

However, Shattock says more studies are needed to demonstrate a definitive link between washing and HIV infection.

Link to abstract of paper by McClelland et al.

AIDS 20, 269 (2006)

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