The demographic and clinical profiles of women presenting with vaginal discharge syndrome at primary care facilities in South Africa: Associations with age and implications for management
Background. Current South African guidelines for the management of vaginal discharge syndrome (VDS) do not recommend treatment for sexually transmitted infection (STI) pathogens for women aged ≥35 years whose partners do not have male urethritis syndrome. The guideline assumes that older women are unlikely to have an STI and that their partners do not have asymptomatic infections.
Objectives. To describe the demographic, behavioural and clinical characteristics of women with VDS, comparing older women (≥35 years) with younger women, and to determine the performance of age alone as a criterion for predicting the presence of STI.
Methods. This was a cross-sectional study at seven primary healthcare centres taking part in the aetiological surveillance of STIs between January 2015 and December 2016. Eligible women presenting with VDS were enrolled and completed a nurse-administered questionnaire. Genital swabs and blood specimens were collected for laboratory testing. Data were entered into surveillance-specific databases and exported into Stata 14 for analysis. Descriptive statistics were used to compare demographic and clinical profiles of older with younger women. A receiver operator curve (ROC) was used to determine the age cut-off that would best differentiate between women who had infection with STI pathogens and those without.
Results. Of 757 women enrolled, 157 (20.7%) were aged ≥35 years. HIV positivity was 46.6%, and higher in older than younger women (54.9% v. 44.5%; p=0.02). Of those enrolled, 283 (37.4%) had bacterial vaginosis (BV) and/or Candida infection only, 232 (30.7%) had BV or Candida with STI pathogens detected, 98 (13%) were infected with STI pathogens only, and 144 (19.0%) did not have any detectable STI or non-STI causes. Although older women were less likely than younger women to have Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Chlamydia trachomatis or Mycoplasma genitalium infection (23.6% v. 38.2%; p<0.01), the burden in older women was not negligible. The area under the ROC for age was 57.5% (95% confidence interval 53.2 - 61.8%), which implies suboptimal performance.
Conclusions. Although older women with VDS were less likely than younger women to have STIs, a significant proportion of them did have an infection with STI pathogens. Age alone was not a good criterion for discriminating between women with and without infection with STI pathogens. Other ways of improving the VDS algorithm performance are needed, as is better integration of HIV and STI prevention and treatment.