Each vagina is a unique, complex, and dynamic environment whose conditions constantly change during a woman’s menstrual cycle and across her entire life. In this dynamic environment, a constellation of diverse microbes cohabit in fluctuating balances. These microbes, together with their physicochemical properties and of their environment, are known as the vaginal microbiome. An optimal balance of the vaginal microbiome is key to maintaining a protective vaginal environment.
For women of reproductive age, protective vaginas are acidic, thanks to beneficial microbes that produce lactic acid. This acidity plus other antimicrobial compounds, produced by the same beneficial bacteria, keep harmful microbes at bay. However, when beneficial microbes are depleted, women are at higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Thus, the vaginal microbiome is critical to a woman’s sexual and reproductive health and to the health and well-being of her partner and children.
Vaginal microbes play a role in the health and well-being of every woman, her partners, and children!
Although the vagina can be the second place in our bodies most populated by microorganisms, vaginal microbes are under-researched. Surprisingly, the vaginal microbiome field only represents 3% of scientific publications related to the human microbiome field which studies microorganisms living in and on our bodies. A more profound understanding of vaginal microbes is necessary to design better therapeutics that could protect and improve women’s health and well-being.
Most of the scientific studies in vaginal microbiome focus on women in reproductive age or pregnant and/or have a small sample size. Questions such as, “What constitutes a healthy vaginal microbiome?” and “How does it protect the female reproductive tract?” are not yet answered in different contexts, demonstrating the need for more vaginal microbiome projects.
Furthermore, to advance vaginal microbiome research, we also need more efforts to overcome taboos and misconceptions that keep vaginal health in the shadows. When we investigated where our society stands in terms of vaginal health, we found the following unexpected and concerning reports:
– There is still so much more to discover about the vaginal microbiome and taboos to break!
We, women, are the ones to lead these discoveries and the changes our societies need! –
The Marie project is a citizen science study with societal and scientific objectives. First, we want to raise public awareness about the importance of vaginal microbes and the taboos and misconceptions surrounding vaginal health. And second, as scientists, we want to learn about the vaginal microbial diversity across Switzerland.
There are many ways you can support our initiative!
And, you can preregister as a participant in the study.
– We believe that providing a woman with knowledge of their most intimate microbes will empower her to talk comfortably about her health. By doing so, she will break taboos or stigma surrounding vaginal health! –
We are Sonja Merten, Monica Ticlla Ccenhua, and Ethel Mendocilla Sato, researchers in Switzerland. Our host institution is The Society, Gender and Health Unit at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH).
We want to give you the power to meet your vaginal microbiome and find out together to what extent it influences your health and well-being.
Our dream is a world where women enjoy a healthier life thanks to societies that speak openly about vaginal health and invest in female-centered innovative research and therapeutics.
Started as a willingness to participate in the Isala project, a vaginal microbiome study carried out at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). Since the participation was restricted to Belgium, the idea of implementing a similar initiative in Switzerland was born.
Our enthusiasm encouraged us to establish a collaboration with Prof. Sarah Lebeer at the University of Antwerp, who leads the Isala project. Her team successfully engaged close to 6000 enthusiastic women from Flanders.
The Lebeer Lab strongly supports citizen science and projects like Isala in different countries, so that vaginal microbiome research can significantly impact women’s health. Lebeer’s research team is currently supporting the implementation of the Laura project in Peru, where vaginal health is an even more complex taboo subject. Lebeer’s team is also setting up a framework, inspired by the Isala project, to make open science in women’s health research easier. Research teams can soon join this international ecosystem. So, the Marie project can benefit from Isala’s knowledge and expertise to improve the project in Switzerland. Together, we can make a difference!
– Our shared dream is to attract collaborations around the world to make a massive impact through a citizen science-based sisterhood of vaginal microbiome studies –
All three projects were named after women who are an icon of perseverance in Belgium, Peru and Switzerland. These icons went against gender roles and what was expected of women in the 19th century. That is, to renounce her studies or work and dedicate her life to her husband and children and do domestic duties.
Isala Van Diest, Laura Rodríguez Dulanto and Marie Heim-Vögtlin worked very hard to become the first female physicians in their respective countries. In Switzerland, Marie Heim-Vögtlin also co-founded the first gynaecological hospital. Funnily enough, Isala Van Diest had to study in Switzerland because, at that time, Belgian universities were not open to women.
Our hope is to start a dialogue about the scientific and everyday aspects that influence vaginal health. In doing so, we will focus our attention on the actual guardians of health: the vaginal microbiome.
We envisioned two phases. The first phase encourages everyone who has a vagina to participate in a health survey. In the second phase of the study, our courageous participants, who took part in the health survey, will get to know their unique and personal vaginal microbiome. The information from these two phases will help us understand the key factors (e.g., hygiene practices, diet, medication use, etc.) that influence the vaginal microbiome diversity in the country.
From Isala’s lessons learned and discussions with our collaborators, it became clear that we should involve citizens from the very beginning until the end of the study. Therefore, for the first phase of the Marie project, we decided to build a community of citizens or early adopters and scientists to launch a co-creation phase. In this co-creation phase, the dialogue between citizens and scientists will help us create a health survey adapted to the needs, wishes and preferences of women living in Switzerland.
The results of the health survey will give us an overview of the overall women’s health situation in Switzerland, and of what misconceptions and taboos prevail in Swiss society about vaginal health.
Our desire is for everyone who participated in the health survey to learn about their personal and unique vaginal microbiome. However, the cutting-edge technologies needed to identify the vaginal microbial composition are very expensive. They will require us to apply for significant funding. However, we want to already start with a small pilot of 500 participants. The preliminary results of this pilot will support the planning of a large-scale study. Once the survey and the pilot study are completed, we will publish the results in scientific articles and, most importantly, apply for additional funding for further research.
– We want to entrust women to take the leading role in their health by providing them with reliable information and constructive support –
Every contribution counts to make the Marie project a reality in the near future!
Ambassadors are our most fond fans who believe in our vision and are willing to help us spread the word about the project within their network or their organizations. Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get in touch with us at email@example.com
Marie can achieve its goals only if you are willing to participate in the two phases of the study. Pre-register now, and we will notify you once the official registration starts!
Let’s challenge Swiss society to talk about vaginal health.