Assess efficacy of intermittent intravaginal metronidazole gel treatment in reducing frequency of bacterial vaginosis (BV).
Randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled phase 3 trial.
Postnatal and family planning clinics of the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and two health centers in Blantyre, Malawi.
Nonpregnant HIV-uninfected and -infected women.
Intravaginal metronidazole treatment and placebo gels provided at baseline and every 3 mo for 1 y.
Primary: Cross-sectional and longitudinal comparisons of BV frequency at baseline, 1 mo after product dispensation (post-treatment evaluation [PTE]), and every quarterly visit. Secondary: Effect of treatment on BV clearance and recurrence.
Baseline: 842 HIV-uninfected and 844 HIV-infected women were enrolled. The frequency of BV at baseline in treatment and placebo arms, respectively, was 45.9% and 46.8% among HIV-uninfected women, and 60.5% and 56.9% among HIV-infected women. Primary outcomes: At the PTEs the prevalence of BV was consistently lower in treatment than placebo arms irrespective of HIV status. The differences were statistically significant mainly in HIV-uninfected women. Prevalence of BV was also reduced over time in both treatment and placebo arms. In a multivariable analysis that controlled for other covariates, the effect of intravaginal metronidazole treatment gel compared with placebo was not substantial: adjusted relative risk (RR) 0.90, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.83–0.97 in HIV-uninfected women and adjusted RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.89–1.01 in HIV-infected women. Secondary outcomes: Intravaginal metronidazole treatment gel significantly increased BV clearance (adjusted hazard ratio [HR] 1.34, 95% CI 1.07–1.67 among HIV-uninfected women and adjusted HR 1.29, 95% CI 1.06–1.58 among HIV-infected women) but was not associated with decreased BV recurrence. Safety: No serious adverse events were related to use of intravaginal gels.
Intermittent microbicide treatment with intravaginal gels is an innovative approach that can reduce the frequency of vaginal infections such as BV.
Background: Bacterial vaginosis (BV) results from a change in the normal balance of bacteria in the vaginal tract, and is very common. In pregnant women, it is associated with poorer outcomes in pregnancy, and is also linked with HIV transmission (although it is not certain that BV actually increases the chance of getting HIV—just because these two occur together it does not necessarily follow that one causes the other). BV can be treated with metronidazole tablets, although these can cause gut symptoms and should not be taken repeatedly. The researchers wanted to carry out a multiclinic–based trial to find out whether a metronidazole gel applied intermittently to the vagina (for five nights every three months) would reduce the frequency of BV among women in Malawi. HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected women, recruited from postnatal and family planning clinics, were randomized to receive either metronidazole gels, or equivalent placebo gels, every three months and were then followed up for 12 months. The primary outcome for the trial was the proportion of women with BV at each quarterly follow-up visit, and the researchers intended to compare this outcome between treatment arms at each visit and also to look at the overall changes over time among women receiving either metronidazole or placebo, looking separately at HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected women.
What this trial shows: In total 1,686 women took part in the trial (842 not infected with HIV, and 844 infected with HIV). The proportion of HIV-uninfected women with BV dropped by around 20% over the course of the trial, both in women using metronidazole and in those using placebo. However, when comparing the proportion of HIV-uninfected women with BV between the two arms of the trial, there did not seem to be a consistent effect: differences were statistically significant at some time points and not others. Among HIV-infected women, there was also a drop over the course of the trial in the proportion of women with BV, irrespective of whether they used metronidazole or placebo. Again, when comparing the rate of BV among HIV-infected women between study arms (metronidazole versus placebo), the researchers did not see a consistent trend; differences were statistically significant at some time points but not others. Overall, when comparing metronidazole and placebo in an analysis that controlled for other factors, the metronidazole gel seemed to show a small effect in reduction of BV among HIV-uninfected women, but no obvious effect among HIV-infected women.
Strengths and limitations: Strengths in the design of this trial include the sample size, which was appropriate to detect an important effect of the metronidazole gel (versus placebo) had one existed, and the randomization and blinding procedures, which were designed to minimize the chance that the trialists or women being enrolled could anticipate to which arm of the trial they might be assigned. A key limitation of this study, as the researchers acknowledge, is the absence of a “no treatment” study arm. The frequency of BV dropped over the course of the trial in women using the placebo gel, raising the possibility that the placebo actually has some effect on bacteria in the vagina. However, a trial with a “no treatment” arm would pose its own problems, since trialists and participants would then not be fully blinded as to their treatment status.
Contribution to the evidence: This trial adds data on the efficacy of metronidazole gel when used intermittently, and among women in the community who may or may not actually have BV. Previous studies have evaluated treatment with metronidazole among women who already have symptoms or a diagnosis of BV. The findings of this trial rule out a substantial effect of metronidazole gel, as compared to placebo gel, in reducing the frequency of BV in this setting.