Kelly K. Baker 1 , * , Bijaya Padhi 2 , Belen Torondel 3 , Padmalaya Das 2 , Ambarish Dutta 2 , Krushna Chandra Sahoo 2 , Bhabani Das 2 , Robert Dreibelbis 4 , Bethany Caruso 5 , Matthew C. Freeman 5 , Lauren Sager 1 , Pinaki Panigrahi 6
5 December 2017
Women face greater challenges than men in accessing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) resources to address their daily needs, and may respond to these challenges by adopting unsafe practices that increase the risk of reproductive tract infections (RTIs). WASH practices may change as women transition through socially-defined life stage experiences, like marriage and pregnancy. Thus, the relationship between WASH practices and RTIs might vary across female reproductive life stages. This cross-sectional study assessed the relationship between WASH exposures and self-reported RTI symptoms in 3,952 girls and women from two rural districts in India, and tested whether social exposures represented by reproductive life stage was an effect modifier of associations. In fully adjusted models, RTI symptoms were less common in women using a latrine without water for defecation versus open defecation (Odds Ratio (OR) = 0.69; Confidence Interval (CI) = 0.48, 0.98) and those walking shorter distances to a bathing location (OR = 0.79, CI = 0.63, 0.99), but there was no association between using a latrine with a water source and RTIs versus open defecation (OR = 1.09; CI = 0.69, 1.72). Unexpectedly, RTI symptoms were more common for women bathing daily with soap (OR = 6.55, CI = 3.60, 11.94) and for women washing their hands after defecation with soap (OR = 10.27; CI = 5.53, 19.08) or ash/soil/mud (OR = 6.02; CI = 3.07, 11.77) versus water only or no hand washing. WASH practices of girls and women varied across reproductive life stages, but the associations between WASH practices and RTI symptoms were not moderated by or confounded by life stage status. This study provides new evidence that WASH access and practices are associated with self-reported reproductive tract infection symptoms in rural Indian girls and women from different reproductive life stages. However, the counterintuitive directions of effect for soap use highlights that causality and mechanisms of effect cannot be inferred from this study design. Future research is needed to understand whether improvements in water and sanitation access could improve the practice of safe hygiene behaviors and reduce the global burden of RTIs in women.