Neisseria meningitidis is more classically known as the cause of meningococcal sepsis and meningococcal meningitis. However its role as a cause of urethritis/cervicitis has been the subject of ongoing speculation over the years, and several studies have backed such a link up. For example, check this study out, and this one.
A recent study has added more weight to this hypothesis, backing the assertion up with DNA studies of the N. meningitidis isolates showing adaptation to a genital environment. (loss of outer capsules, and acquisition of enzymes facilitating survival in a low oxygen environment)
So what does this all mean for clinical microbiology laboratories?
I guess it shows the inherent weakness of molecular diagnosis. There could be a widespread outbreak of urethritis due Neisseria meningitidis urethritis in your local area, but the laboratory would be completely naïve to it, if it only performs molecular testing for C. trachomatis and N. gonorrhoeae. Particularly in the Sexual Health Clinic setting, adjunctive culture of STI samples is important, and not just to obtain the N. gonorrhoeae susceptibilities.
It is also possible that the selective molecular diagnosis and treatment of N. gonorrhoeae will therefore create a “niche” for organisms like Neisseria meningitidis to adapt physiologically and “gatecrash” the party. (I will talk more about “selective pressure by diagnosis” in the next post.)
And finally on this topic, there is also intriguing data coming out that suggests that some meningococcal vaccines may have a protective effect for N. gonorrhoeae infection. Suspected for some time, this suggestion has been backed up by some observational data in this study. More research is obviously needed. We are still a bit away I suspect from a gonococcal vaccine.
The physiological and evolutionary relationship between Neisseria meningitidis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a fascinating one. We shouldn’t think too much about one without considering the other…