Priyanka Jain and Laine Bruzek aim to close the gender gap in healthcare. And they’re mostly talking about vaginas.
With their new company Evy, launched earlier this year, they address an issue that remains a mystery to so many women. About one in three women, or 30 percent, have vaginal problems each year, says Jain. Many of these will be chronic cases of repeated infections or dysbiosis. And yet the treatment used is still too basic, she says. “We just put a bomb in there, like in an antibiotic, and then hope the right bacteria grow back.”
Evvy has two missions: one to help women better understand what’s going on in their vaginal microbiome using whole genome testing and two to collect data on a part of the body that has been neglected.
“Women were generally not included in clinical trials until after 1993,” she exclaims. “That’s in the 90s!”
Because women have only been a part of medical studies for three decades, Jain says there’s so much about the women’s body that we still don’t fully understand. “Women are diagnosed on average four years later than men in 770 diseases. We’re just terrible at understanding what health and disease look like in the female body because we’ve barely done it for 30 years.
Evvy offers a home test kit that allows women to take a swab and send it in to see what bacteria is currently present in their vagina. Getting a more holistic view of what’s going on, with a breakdown of bacteria by name and species, can help a woman treat the problem more accurately. “Bacterial vaginosis in particular,” Jain explains, “isn’t a very useful term. It simply means that there is an imbalance in your vagina.
And yet it affects more than 20 million women in America each year, for which there is no clear treatment protocol. It’s a trial and error process, with antibiotics being the first line of defense.
Jain was driven to start the business because she had been dealing with a variety of health issues that no doctor could fully explain or treat. “I’ve just been told to sleep more, drink more water, stress less, very broad stuff, which was really frustrating.”
It was a similar story for her co-founder Bruzek. She was misdiagnosed for years before discovering that the problem she was actually battling was bacterial vaginosis. When Jain came to her with the idea of a vaginal microbiome company three years after her diagnosis, Bruzek knew she had to get involved. She applied her marketing background to Evvy; the clever copywriting and somewhat in-your-face messages are intentional, she says, “Because we need to make it a more mainstream topic. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. There are millions of women who go through it every day in The United States.”
Her focus is on getting as much information as possible for women. The company’s blog features articles on every topic imaginable related to the vaginal microbiome and is intended to be a resource for girls and women, especially if their doctors have been less than helpful.
Evvy hopes that with a personalized set of results (and some coaching) you’ll be better equipped to talk to your doctor. “Part of the challenge is that some doctors have not had training on the specific bacterial imbalances that can occur. So much of what we do and what we look at has been developed in the last 10 years or so. That means not all doctors being aware of these advancements,” says Jain. “So not everyone is getting the empathic care they deserve.”
While it may be a business aimed at women, Jain also notes that these issues indirectly affect men’s lives as well. “Women aren’t the only ones whose quality of life is reduced by a chronic problem,” she adds. When she was raising money for the company, she says, several of the male investors in the room later approached her privately and shared that they had seen the women in their families struggle with these issues as well.
There’s also the bigger question of how vaginal health affects a woman’s overall health. The latest research indicates there is a connection. Because the vagina is a gateway for pathogens, poor vaginal health can lead to other diseases and conditions. “That’s why it’s so essential for the vagina to maintain the pH and the right mix of bacteria because it becomes an acidic environment where many pathogens can’t survive,” she says.
Evvy has a long way to go: Jain and Burzek are eager to make it more affordable, possibly even working with healthcare providers to make it even more accessible. That’s a system they’ll use as they build the business. “Unfortunately, we operate in a world where funding supports research and insurance provides coverage. But we are looking at what we can do to make it as affordable as possible given the lab work and technology required to run the tests.”
In the meantime, Evvy hopes to demystify the female body as much as possible through testing and education.